I was looking back at all of the trips I did last year, and I realized I couldn’t even recall a few! On an average, I had been on at least one trip a month in 2015. If I struggled to remember 12 destinations, I would certainly find it it a task to remember 12 times the-number-of-years-I-live (assumiing I keep up my pace of travel for the rest of my life 😉 ).
As I flipped through my Poland album (see What Warsaw Whispers – A Photoessay), I was suddenly gripped by the fear that I would someday forget all about those wonderful moments I spent there.
View from the Royal Castle in Warsaw
I knew there were myriad ways I could store all the pictures, but I wanted to keep a trace of the path I took at every place I went. That is when I stumbled upon Travelibro. This site showed me (and quite literally with its video and user-friendly prompts) how I could preserve some practical bits of my trips so I would never have to worry about forgetting anything.
My travel map on Travelibro
After I created my account on the website, I could colour the world map with all the places I have already seen (and also pick those on my bucket list). I quickly filled up the list of countries as I went through one photo album after another, remembering my moments in every place I have been.
Travelibro created a neat little travel tracker for me with the flags of the countries on a timeline. I have only been to 10 countries so far, and that makes me a “globe trotter” already on the site. 🙂
Tracking countries on a timeline
After I marked my countries, I got to the task of documenting my trips. I started with Latvia (see The Romance of Riga). The process of creating an itinerary is very simple on Travelibro – you pick your country, the cities you have been to, the dates of travel, the type of trip (adventure, budget, romantic, etc.), the places you stayed at, the restaurants you ate at and the activities you recommend. Most of these have preloaded options to guide you. You can then start telling your stories (by each city/town/village) and create a day-by-day plan. You obviously get to upload pictures with captions and finally select the cost of your trip before you publish it for the world to see.
The silhouette of Riga as I last saw it
I currently have most of my recent foreign itineraries up on Travelibro. Do visit my profile – http://travelibro.com/users/oindrila-de. It will be fun swapping itineraries and taking travel tips from the growing community of travellers and travel bloggers on the site!
For those who prefer flash-packing, do check out their On-The-Go app feature. It lets you create shared timelines with your travel buddies on the fly with simple things such as check-ins, photo uploads and status updates.
My easy-to-use country-itineraries
I understand that many travellers prefer to have their hands held through the tedious process of preparing for a trip (think booking flights, hotels, planning the itinerary etc.). I have also gone through moments when I wished I could outsource the boring stuff to an agent, especially when I was planning a trip to Lithuania (see Running in Lithuania – My First Half Marathon Abroad) – applying for a visa was a real hassle! If you like to relax while someone else plans your trip for you, Travelibro has something that will make you smile! You can choose from a collection of travel agents to bear your headache for you.
While I was running through Vingis Park – the largest park in Vilnius
Of course, there are many of us who truly enjoy the task of planning every bit of our trip. (And I belong to this group.) Travelibro lets you search for itineraries (created by real people who have actually undertaken those trips) by destination and type (luxury, business, roadtrip, etc.), so you can look for some inspiration. Do read their blog posts for useful tips!
Hundreds of itineraries to help you plan a holiday
The site also interfaces with Skyscanner for flight search and Homestay for accommodation search. Now, you can’t even blame laziness for not taking that long-pending trip! 😀
We are never the same people when we travel. It changes us in beautiful ways. If you ever forget how fulfilled you felt when you just returned from a trip, you will thank yourself for storing your memories on Travelibro.
Puppets hang grinning inside a souvenir shop in Prague
I read my own itinerary for Czech Republic a while back and remembered I haven’t written about it on this blog yet. Now, I know I won’t have to wrack my brains to recollect all my experiences there.
How do you record your travel memories? Let me know by commenting below!
Last year, when I opened my travel calendar with a trip to Jodhpur, I thought I was going to fall for the tourist trap of visiting the regular sightseeing spots in the “Blue City”. I did not know I would end up surprising myself with a road trip to a small but important village right around the corner.
The road watches us zoom past
En Route to Bishnoi
When I told my host in Jodhpur that I was more keen on seeing quaint hamlets than grand palaces and forts, he looked offended. But he recovered quickly and arranged for a jeep for my Rajasthani road trip. I would be going for a drive to the village of Bishnoi! My Rajput driver hailed from Pakistan. He told me stories of his childhood and how he still longed to see his uncle who continues to live in his home country.
The earth is gravely and the trees, thorny
The drive was a noisy one, with the old jeep’s engine sputtering to stay alive. Even though the road was narrow and dusty, the CEAT tyres ensured that the journey was smooth. All along the way, I listened to the story behind the name of the village. Bishnoi actually means twenty (bish) nine (noi). The Bishnoi tribe that lives here, follows twenty nine tenets set out by their guru. While some principles are quite regressive, I fully support some others which emphasize on the conservation of nature and kindness towards animals.
A peacock shies away from our jeep
I knew we had almost reached Bishnoi when I spotted a peacock strolling by the green plant cover. We were at Guda Vishnoiyan – a great place to spot some exotic birds. The place was peaceful, with no other human in sight.
The simple landscape of Bishnoi
I got off my jeep an explored the area on foot. I saw land divided into plots. That must have been the humans’ side of the village. On the other side, there was no segregation. The trees were happy to share space with their neighbours and be home to a number of birds.
The little lake at Guda Vishnoiyan
From the Pottery Wheel
I had started to daydream as I gazed at a lake that the trees looked over. I soon remembered that we had to reach a potter before sunset. Off we drove to the potter’s workshop! I had a lovely evening meeting the humble craftsman who even let me try my hand at spinning the pottery wheel.
A world full of clay
As I observed the intricate designs on myriad clay objects, I became more curious about the techniques used to fashion those forms. The master patiently demonstrated how to shape the clay mould as it rotated on the wheel. Pottery isn’t as easy as it looks. It requires a lot of perseverance and practice.
The magic of kiln
My next visit was to a fabric painter’s place. His small room was full of colourful pieces of cloth with symmetrical designs all over. This art form was block printing. The real trick in this is to create a block with the pattern you like. The next steps are fun – dunking the block in dye and dabbing your cloth piece with it.
Block printing artist at work
The patterns come through beautifully! With dyes in assorted colours and blocks in assorted shapes, you can create some really complex and wonderful designs! These Rajasthani prints are then used on table cloths, bedsheets, clothes and many other things.
Stories come alive on pieces of fabric
The sky was turning dark when we were done touring the village. I silently watched the sunset from the deck above the lake. It was a colourful end to a colourful road trip.
I want to… but should I?… looks like I can’t… wait, maybe I can! 🙂
I fought a dozen thoughts before I caught one by its wings while I was two days from flying to Europe. It was never supposed to be a part of my plan. It was last minute. Then again, the best memories you make are never by design. I booked my tickets to Riga on a whim. And that is how I learned I should do such things more often – doing things on a whim, that is.
Riga’s cityscape breaks the blue monotone of the river and the sky
Love at First Sight
When I first looked at Riga, I had to take off my sunglasses to see it with my naked eyes. Dazzling under the afternoon sun, the river Daugava glowed like sapphire. The endless waters seemed to separate the new town from the old, which were joined by impressive bridges. I saw the famous railway bridge made of iron – quite hard to miss since there’s always a train crossing it with its accompanying sounds. It was my first time in Latvia, and I could not tell the old town from the new one (at least from where I stood). So, I decided to toss a coin and cross the Stone Bridge (which is for cars and pedestrians).
The National Library of Latvia
And that is how I ran into Latvijas Nacionālā bibliotēka, the silver building with an interesting architecture. After walking about on this side of the town for a few minutes and hardly finding any humans on the streets (the population here must really be low! 😛 ), I finally decided to open up Google Maps for help. But thanks to Murphy’s Law, it wouldn’t work! So, I did what I best do when I am lost – found me a place to eat. 🙂
At Picas Meistars
In the tranquilizing ambiance of the quaint diner, I decided to stop being my own compass and texted my only friend in Riga. From our short chat, I knew I was on the wrong side of the bridge (that is, if there can ever be a “wrong” side). I ordered something with šampinjoni (mushrooms, if you really want to know) after some difficulty interpreting the Latvian menu. You will be delighted to know that English is rarely used in this country. That means, you have a great chance of picking up some Latvian. 🙂 (On the contrary, if you don’t like to open up to other cultures and languages, you will be in a tight spot! 😀 ) After crossing over to the Old Town, I managed to pose for a picture with the notable library in the background.
Blue and white – I did get my colours right! 😉
I entered Vecrīga (the Old Town of Riga) to the melody of a Latvian folk song. Strumming a blue acoustic guitar, stood a man by a lamppost at the centre of the old town. His partner, dressed in a long yellow frock, swayed and sang a fast paced country rhyme – or daina – as called in Latvian. Oh, how beautiful it felt to gaze at the towering steeple of St. Peter’s Church (first built in the 13th century) – with the perfect music to set the mood!
I could see that Riga was all out to impress me – first, leading me astray and building up the suspense; then, finally taking me on a musical date in the heart of Old Town. I had but 24 hours in Latvia, and my surprises had only just begun! 🙂
Fresh music in the Old Town – a poetic welcome!
In Love and War…
I was awed by the impeccably maintained buildings which looked as though they had just been constructed. I soon discovered that most of these structures were first erected in the 13th and the 14th centuries. They saw the biggest of wars – The Great War (Polish-Lithuanian-Teutonic War) and the Second World War – and suffered destruction at the hands of the Germans and the Soviets.
It is almost ironical that the Germans in 1941 should bomb the House of the Blackheads – a church initially built for a guild of unmarried German merchants in Riga – Brotherhood of the Blackheads. Even its remnants could not survive for long as by 1948, the Soviets razed everything to the ground.
Dine under a patio umbrella in front of the House of the Blackheads
Riga is Born Again
Despite the wars, Latvia picked up its pieces and restored its heritage buildings. The Historic Centre of Riga is now a World Heritage Site, and tourism has gathered steam in the recent years after Latvia became independent again in 1991.
Strolling by the souvenir shops, one can’t help but notice cute figurines made of ceramic gracing the window displays. From sheep to barristers to village-huts, the mementos one can take back home are diverse. The red and white Latvian national flag is also visible everywhere.
Adorable little things that almost beg you to pick them up
Sauntering down the cobblestone streets of the Old Town, I counted rows and rows of houses that looked like they had come out of a children’s story book – red brick roofs, attics which looked like small houses themselves, windowpanes which appeared to have been made of ice-cream sticks, striped awnings, and even tall chimneys! So, these were the houses I had always been drawing in primary school! 😀
Riga did pop up once in a Bollywood movie (Agent Vinod), and I watched it at the theatre just to have a look at Riga. But that movie did no justice to the lovely capital city that Riga really is.
Groupfie in lowlight!
It was an emotional moment for both of us to meet after such a long time. Neither of us had really believed our paths would cross again in due course of time. We ate our dinners with a shot of Latvian balsam (a really strong spirit) and some pale ale from Bauskas alus, a brewery in the southern town of Bauskas. Then, my friend gave me the most beautiful parting gift by taking us on a walking tour of the city at night.
Dimly lit alleyways – perfect for romantic walks in the night
Riga at Night
Riga gets a makeover as the sun sets. From its colourful, cheerful self in the daylight, it transforms into a seductive, mysterious character. Depending on which part of the old town you are in, you will either find yourself amidst rows of nightclubs that play booming music and have a lot of partygoers celebrating loudly on the streets, or you will be able to escape into a quiet corner with not a soul in sight.
My love affair with Riga reached its crescendo when I found myself in this deserted cafe tucked inside the patio of an old building whose paint had chipped off to reveal the blood red bricks beneath.
The most romantic cafe in Old Town
I sat there looking up at the cloudless sky for a while before I decided to head back to my room.
I woke up next morning excited for a new day of unplanned adventure, but I was sad to have to leave Riga. I stood by my window for a long time, taking in that unforgettable picture of the Old Town until I could remember it with my eyes closed. I left Riga at dawn, and our story would have to end there, like most romances that always have to end. They just cannot be perfect otherwise. That final image of the historic centre swathed in grey, before the sun fills it up with colour, will stay with me forever.
The silhouette of Riga as I last saw it
Have you ever been to a place and fallen instantly in love with it? Or did your love grow over time? Share your travel-love-story with me!
I had been running various long distance stretches for almost two years, and half marathons in particular for about nine months. I did not think I was ready for what I was about to do in September 2015. But I took a leap of faith in myself and decided to do it anyway. A little more than a month before the D-day, sitting in my room in Mumbai, I booked my slot for the Vilnius Half Marathon. And that, my friends, is how this story started!
The pacers gather before the marathon starts
For someone who had never run outside of Mumbai, this was BIG! I had not even run in a different Indian city or even Asian for that matter. One fine afternoon, when I was possessed by the idea of vacationing in Europe and running while I was at it, I started searching for half marathons in the continent. I had to park various marathons because they were either too expensive or had a qualifier which I did not meet or would have water/snack stations more than 5km apart (I just need something to sip/eat every 2km). When I came across the Danske Bank Vilniaus Maratonas, I had a feeling this one was made just for me – affordable, no qualifier, snack stations every 2 kilometers and also an English version of the site (and that is rare for European marathon sites, believe me)! 🙂
Who wouldn’t want to run on roads like these!
The Litmus Test
I had a few challenges to conquer before I reached Lithuania. Firstly, the Lithuanian consulate in Mumbai does not do visa processing. But more on that later (in a different blog post). Secondly, if you participate in extreme sports (and marathons are considered extreme sports), you need a special kind of visa and your travel insurance amount goes up. I only had about a month to get to Vilnius and I had so much to do – book flights, plan my stay, arrange for documents for the Schengen visa… sigh! Administrative worries aside, I would also have to train for the run. With a full-time job that ate up most of my weekday time, I barely had weekends to get any running done. (And we all know weekends are sacred days meant for resting, partying and catching up with friends! 😛 )
The Neris River which flows all the way from Belarus!
With the challenges though, came innovative solutions. I figured out my visa and tickets and everything bit by bit. I realized it is very easy once you tackle just one thing at a time. And for the marathon training, I joined a high-intensity cardio and pilates workout class in my office building. It did not seem to make much sense in the beginning. (Why would I waste my time worrying about flexibility and upper body strength when I would actually only need strong legs!) I thought initially that the post-work sessions were doing little else than raising my heart rate for those 45 minutes. But as the days progressed, I found that I was running better as my core muscles strengthened. My strides had become longer due to the increased flexibility in my legs. And as I had expected, my heart learnt to cope better with a faster heartbeat for prolonged durations. I had never trained for any run like this before. I would only rely on running, and simply more running. But only time would tell if this new regime would make a difference to my finishing time!
When I was finally in Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania), my Airbnb hosts were delighted to learn that I was going to be running. When I went to pick up my race-packet, I could feel the excitement building up. The volunteers wanted to take pictures with me and the locals were excited to see a foreigner from a faraway country. I must tell you now that I was the only Indian (and possibly the first one ever) to be participating at the Vilnius half marathon (I still can’t believe I hold that record 🙂 ).
Vingis Park from a bridge above
The Goody Bag
The running kit had the usual suspects – my running bib, instruction sheets for the half marathon and some freebees (beer can, porridge mix, cod liver oil tablets, ankle guards and cold gel for pain relief). I was really thrilled though to see them give a complimentary energy gel. It is so hard to find one in Mumbai’s sports or medical stores. (I have been hunting for carbo snack gels for many months now, hoping some store would finally stock up, but no luck there.) You can only hope to order online or if you are one of those wealthy elite marathoners, buy gels from your trips abroad.
View from the bank – Vilnius cityscape
It’s All About Money, Honey!
People think running is the cheapest sport one can pursue. What does one need after all, save for a decent pair of shoes? Let me debunk that myth for you. As you have more runs behind you, you realize the importance of shoes with special features – extra cushion at the soles and ankles, form and memory retention, pronation-control, and what not! These sort of shoes from big brands cost you upwards of INR 7000. And because you don’t want to wear only one pair out, you invest at least in two. Then there is the question of good running clothes – tees and shorts/track pants made of sweat wicking (ordinary cotton can absorb sweat and become heavy) and anti-chafing material (most fabrics will cause rashes when they continuously rub against your skin). Depending on the brands you hanker after, this should set you back by another few thousand rupees.
The expenses rise if you are a woman. You additionally have to invest in some excellent quality high-impact sports bras (the yoga-variety simply won’t give you enough support). And because we like to be fashionable, the colour and design element will make it impossible for those to cost anything less than 3 grands. Many pro runners wear fitness bands, waist belts and hydration packs and carry all their gatorade, water and carbo-gels on their person. Some special trail marathons also require you to have a Road ID which can only be imported from USA. (Looks like I’m digressing from my theme.)
While I was running through Vingis Park – the largest park in Vilnius
Few moments compare to those I experience when I am running. On 13th September, 2015, I woke early and prepared me a nice meal of oats with yogurt. Vilnius was unusually cold for its summery September that morning. It must have been 9 degrees Celsius outside. For someone who had only run in humid Mumbai with the temperature seldom dropping below 20, it was fricking cold! I was almost about to wear stockings, but I stopped short of such buffoonery and got on with some thick moisturizing. When I stepped out of the temperature controlled house, I was hit by the gust of icy winds. Maybe I am exaggerating, but how else do you feel in flimsy sweat-wicking clothes when you’d rather wear an overcoat.
On that lovely morning, all modes of transport had been closed around the marathon route. That meant, I would have to walk 3km to the starting tents. It was good in a way as that gave me a chance to warm up well and adjust to the cold. Even the local runners found it cold! When I reached Cathedral Square (where all the runs would begin), I was dazzled by the carnival-like atmosphere! That day, Vilnius truly was a “marathon town”! There were runners from so many countries! Hundreds of locals had come out to cheer for us. I met a Polish girl who was running a half marathon for the first time in her life, and was the only runner from her village. We had decided to run together.
The amphitheatre inside Vingis Park
Despite such a huge international crowd, the announcements proceeded in Lithuanian. We knew it was time to run only when the runners before us started running. 😛
By now, you must have had a view of some of the places that my half marathon route took me through. I was so mesmerized by the natural beauty and old-worldly charm of Vilnius that I just had to stop and take a few snaps. We ran over bridges with the River Neris looking up at us from below, through the Vingis Park – the largest and most imposing park in Vilnius, past a stadium, an amphitheatre and a church, up a hill, on a forest trail with trees lining our narrow path, and up and down the undulating cobblestoned roads of the Old City. The run did not feel boring for even a second. We were entertained by several international bands, drummers, percussionists and dancers along the way.
And…this is how I became the first Indian to run the Vilnius Half Marathon
After the Run
The Vilnius Half Marathon was easily the toughest one I had run so far. Notwithstanding, I clocked my best ever time! 🙂 The credit goes not only to the new workout, but also to the clean air and the resounding support of the volunteers and spectators.
I did not have the energy after the run to wait for a free massage or stand for my turn in the shower-truck, so I stopped to buy a kibinai (a local delicacy) and after that filling snack, started for my long walk back to the flat. That morning, I had walked/run for more than 27km! When I reached my host’s place, she had a little surprise waiting for me! 🙂
My host made me comfort food for after my run! 🙂
It was the sweetest and the most useful thing any host could do for a tired and hungry runner! She had made me cottage cheese and potato pancakes and left a couple of cute notes on how to eat them.
Vilnius saw me through my very first international marathon. I will hopefully go on to run many more runs abroad. But this one will always be the first. Always the most special – where it all started. I don’t have more pics from the run, but you can watch this video to see what it felt like:-
Have you ever run outside your home country? Or been on a “runcation”? I would love to hear your experiences! 🙂
“Nothing ever seems straightforward in Venice, least of all its romances.”
Roger Ebert probably intended these words for tourists like me who walk starry-eyed into this ‘City of Canals’, expecting to float about without the bustle of crowds clouding their view. All that I knew about Venice came from an old English chapter I had read in school, and a couple of movies that panned across pristine blue waters with a gondola gliding under ornate bridges.
Venice floats on tourism
While Venezia may not be everything you’ve seen on TV, it is worth a visit! This article does not aim to tell you what you can see and do here. Instead, to make sure you don’t fall into tourist traps or return unimpressed by this Gothic beauty, it tells you WHAT NOT TO DO IN VENICE:-
1. Don’t let the gondoliers take you for a ride
Riding on a gondola will no doubt be numero uno on your list of things to do in Venice. But if you’re not careful, you might just end up spending 5 times the normal charge! I was in Venice a few years back, and every highly accented Italian gondolier quoted anywhere between 200 and 500 Euros for a ride that would last only a few minutes. A reasonable rate does not cross 150 Euros. If you’re a tourist on a budget, take the group rides on large gondolas and avoid the solo or couple rides.
Gondola rides are better enjoyed with music
Once you get in, make sure you sing along with the gondolier (yes, they all sing for you! ) and wave at all the jealous tourists who take your picture!
2. Venetian masks are not diamonds. Don’t buy those for your girlfriend!
In Venice, if anything sells more than a gondola-ride, it is the famous Venetian mask! The masks are all exquisite and you won’t mind paying a premium for bringing one back home. But remember that these are fragile. If you don’t know HOW you will pack and carry them across a thousand miles, do not spend your Euros on them. I know quite a few people who’ve returned with broken masks and dented wallets.
Even if you manage to transport a mask safely, think of WHAT you will do with it. It is unlikely you’ll have a masquerade party anytime soon. And if you do, you surely won’t risk losing your precious eye-mask in the dark! Most Venetian masks that make their way across the world, end up in glass-shelves or are forgotten in dusty attics.
3. Don’t reach Venice at nightfall!
Maybe there isn’t enough land for everyone here
Unless you’re a local with your own vaporetto, don’t play ‘risk-taking traveler’ and enter this city at night. Here’s why:
The water-taxi or vaporetti service stops at 7PM and there’s no other public transport in this ‘City of Water’ to take you anywhere. This is one place where you can’t just flag a cab/catch a bus or hitchhike. If you arrive at night, you might just have to sleep at Stazione di Venezia Santa Lucia. And with so many people crowding up the train-station, I don’t think you’ll find much space to stretch your feet. Venice also gets very dark in the evening and doesn’t have too many street-lights (wherever you find streets, that is).
4. Don’t eat by the famous canals
A date by the canal or in a secret alleyway? You decide!
…unless you’re rich to begin with. The al fresco restaurants and cafes that dot the streets by the canals offer beautiful views of the deep green water (yes, green. All this water is unfortunately dirty), but they charge a bomb for largely ordinary food. If you must eat well, walk further inland and satiate your hunger at small restaurants there.
Also, Venice is no place for pizzas. The classic margherita here is just chewy bread with lots of tomato sauce slathered on top. You must, however, not forget to try some gelato. I’ve tasted the world’s best gelato in Venice!
5. Don’t dress like a backpacker
So, my travel-junkiness was limited to the waist -pouch. But I’ve dressed much worse, trust me!
The ‘City of Bridges’ receives a lot of rainfall (of course, you must know that, what with all the water flowing about ). But this is no excuse to forget you’re in the world’s most fashion-conscious country! Venice is no place to wear ugly windcheaters and romp about in clunky sneakers. This is where you must show off your exotic derby hats and flowy sundresses.
6. Don’t pose on the Rialto Bridge
…but I couldn’t resist posing myself! 😛
When I asked her for directions to the Rialto Bridge, the Venetian mask-seller looked at me aghast. “You don’t know Rialto! It is the world’s most famous bridge!” she exclaimed in broken English. (Does that put London Bridge on the 2nd position? )
I knew Rialto when I saw it. It was choc a bloc with tourists jostling for space. I wondered what this bridge had that its poor country-cousins didn’t. I got clicked on the Rialto but I’d suggest you give it a miss and look for smaller bridges that are less crowded and therefore, much better for photographs.
* * *
Venice will never cease to delight visitors, even with all its quirks
I hope the list doesn’t scare you away from Venice. It is a city like no other. It is the land of water! It needs to be explored slowly and mostly on foot as you walk in small alleyways and discover Renaissance facades interspersed with Baroque palazzos. The fragile interconnected structure of the 118 islands has necessitated a ban on new construction, but this does not deter the constant flow of people into this perpetually flooded city. Venice can be discovered only when you lose the crowd and lose yourself in old buildings that still stand tall.