It was an official trip for me to Hamburg from Bangalore, India but I had already on my agenda a short personal backpack tour to Paris and Vienna besides sightseeing in Hamburg of course.

After a short stop-over at Frankfurt, I finally arrived in Hamburg early morning around 10 am. Hamburg, city of lakes which has the 2nd largest number of population in Germany after Berlin bore a deserted look and I was told that it is because it was a Sunday, the rest day.

I took a cab from the airport for Hotel Berlin, where my accommodation was arranged for a week. Hotel Berlin does not quite live upto its 4 star image. Extremely small rooms but courteous staff. Junges is a fairly nice hotel on the same road as Hotel Berlin and is closer to the main train station. I stayed there for few days and found it comfortable.

My chauffeur from the airport to the hotel was an African guy, bitten by ‘enthusiasm’ and later may be by a ‘laughter’ bug, since he chatted nineteen to a dozen and laughed at the end of every second sentence. I tried concentrating on the roads and kept asking him about different interesting structures and places that I saw.

It was my first visit out of the country and for a new person it can be intimidating at times especially when you have nobody known to talk to and especially when you find roads deserted and markets closed. For working people who love shopping, Hamburg can be quite a disappointment since shops are open till around 7 pm on weekdays; till 4 pm on Saturdays and closed on Sundays. I was quite surprised to learn that shops did not open as a special case on Sundays during the world cup.

After having checked in at the hotel and a quick shower I decided to get out on street and absorb “Hamburg.” The main train station called the hauptabahnof was 15 minutes walking distance from my hotel. It is a good idea to keep your camera handy with you when you move out, which is what I did. I reached hauptabahnof taking several photo shots on the way. Many a times I had this strange feeling of getting mugged on that lonely street! Knock wood nothing of that sort happened nor did anybody warm me to ‘be safe’. Hamburg is safe to walk around but it is still advisable to be mindful of your bearings.

The breeze was biting cold. Thankfully I had wrapped myself in layers. Winter sets in during October month; hence I was suggested to carry lots of warm clothing. Hamburg is quite known to have an unpredictable weather. I myself witnessed extremely moist foggy winter day just a day after full sunshine.

Hauptabahnof looked like any mall from India. ‘Huge’ with array of colorful shops. I enquired and somehow located the bus service spot. I paid Ihan (name of the tourist bus guide), 19 Euros and secured a window seat on top level of the bus. You get a better view from top and if you manage to get the front most seats on top even better. There was one stop-over at St Michael’s church during this two and half hour of sightseeing. Ihan spoke both in German and English. The only challenge was by the time he started describing in English we would have had already crossed the place he was describing about. He told us that the average income of German is a whooping amount of 76k Euros! I enjoyed each bit of this city trip. At least Hamburg did not look dead to me anymore.

I was quite tired and sleepy by the end of the sightseeing trip; I decided to call it a day and hit the sack very early. Though there isn’t much time difference between Germany and India (Germany is behind by 3.5 hrs) I found it difficult to get into German time for first few days, resulting I had longer days than anybody else.

At work, week one had days filled with training sessions. It was quite interesting to meet and observe people from various parts of the world- Singapore, Korea, Brazil, California, Italy and Belgium. I made friends almost instantly with my colleagues from Korea and Italy. We all got together for a common lunch on day one where we went to mensa (army mess) very close to office/ hotel Berlin. Mensa did not look any less than a restaurant on Church Street of Bangalore. We also went out for a common evening on day two of our stay to a restaurant named Casino. Few of us from the Asia Pacific region were quite disappointed to find it a plain eating place and not the ‘real’ casino. But I was told that there are few of those in the city.

I ordered the safest dish on the menu for the evening- Gnocchi but the surprise element was the ripe banana split into two halves which came as a dressing over my main dish. My colleague from Korea ordered a flat noodle dish soaked in orange juice (and I thought my dish was most interesting). But you need not worry as yet; there are joints to suit the oriental taste buds that you can explore.

A typical lunch dish can cost you around 3 to 5 Euros while a dinner can be anything between 7 to 30 Euros. The water comes with a fizz and doesn’t come free even with your lunch or dinner. People indulge in mixed beer here. I was amused to know about ‘Alster’, the mixed beer. Mixed beer has a different name in the south of Germany. You get alster by mixing beer with Sprite, coke and even fanta. No wonder beer is more popular than water and also legally allowed to be consumed on streets anytime of the day!

There were many eateries in and around my office complex. But these opened only during the day and that too just around the lunch time. Guess they did not make too much business out in the night since there were not too many residents around that area; just few hotels with tourists struggling to find a new eating joint each new day. You can count me in when I say ‘struggling tourists.” But if you go to places like Reeperbahn you will have array of eating joints, pubs and discotheques. Reeperbahn is also infamous for having a red light area.

Thanks to my friend back home who managed to find some link who could be of some local help to me in Hamburg, I could do a bit of detailed sightseeing (not just from the bus). We sat near the Alster Lake situated in the middle of a busy commercial area. Post this we took the S bahn and reached the harbor.

The train systems can be a bit confusing for a newcomer but once you get a hang of it, it’s fairly easy. The ticket vending machine has directions in German language, so it is imperative to have a local with you else you might get lost. Even the directions inside the station are in German so if you are traveling alone you might have to trust your judgment and do some guess work. But I must admit the train systems are really good and impeccable.

There were few ships docked at the harbor and it was a sight in itself to see those larger than life built structures from up-close. It was more than nippy that night since the wind from the North Sea was ice cold. We were hungry. We got packed French La Crepes (with banana and chocolate sauce) and got into the ferry for a ride. It tasted awesome and I was looking forward to have more of it in Paris which I was visiting the coming weekend.

We chose to take the upper floor under the star ceiling. We got off after 15 minutes to take a ride back to our original point. We had an interesting meeting with two ladies at the stop while we were waiting for the ferry for a ride back. Both were ausleanders (foreign residents in Germany) to Hamburg and hailed from other parts of Germany. I was surprised to hear them say that they found Hamburg a much closed community in terms of people being hesitant in giving apartments for rent to ausleanders.

Bollywood and Shahrukh Khan are almost synonymous for Germans. The TV channels broadcast Hindi movies some times and they are mostly Shahrukh movies. Else you will see only German programs on the television here except for one news channel that is broadcasted in English. After having exchanged few interesting facts and snippets about India and Germany (Hamburg in particular) we bid adieu to the two ladies and got in our ferry.

People travel to work in these ferries besides other modes of transport like cars and bikes. You will find quite a few swanky looking two-seater cars on street and a separate lane clearly marked for bike riders.

After the ferry ride we took the U bahn and reached the Hauptabahnof. It was well past dinner time. We packed a pummes-doner (chicken with finger chips) from a Turkish joint for our dinner. The portions here are fairly huge. A mini pummes doner was equal to a large portion. So if you are not too hungry you know now what portion to order.

Hamburg is fairly an expensive city. The airfares are cheaper than the train fares. One way fare from Vienna to Hamburg was around 120 Euros on an economy flight. The WGs (shared rented apartment pronounced as waygeys) will cost you around 250-350 Euros for a single room with shared kitchen and bath and that too in a not so posh area.

If you are thinking of shopping at Hamburg you can go to the famous fisch market (fish market) on Sunday early mornings which has other exhibits besides fish and that too at a reasonable price or you can go to the city centre near to the Hauptabahnof where you will have numerous options. For souvenirs Tea embassy at Hauptabahnof is a good bet (it is located near the entrance where you have the Nike outlet).

If you go to the city centre do not miss to taste some fish and chips from ‘fish and chips’. And for those who indulge in all sorts of meat should taste the typical German food called Curry Wurst. Wurst is the German translation for Sausage made of all kinds of mixed meat and is a considered to be a delicacy. Before leaving India people had suggested me to carry few packed ready-to-eat food. But I would not suggest it in case you are open to experiment with food and want to ‘experience the city’ through food. Non meat eaters don’t fret as yet even the vegetarians have some respite.

I enjoyed my each day at Hamburg to the hilt and found Germans quite warm, friendly and helpful. I guess the ausleanders might have a different story to tell but visiting Hamburg can be fun.

I had booked tickets on euro rail from India. It costs you a bomb if you book tickets in Germany or anywhere in Europe. Almost cent percent more that what you will pay in India. I got myself booked tickets for Paris and Vienna for the one weekend I had in Europe before I left for India. So my plan was Hamburg-Paris-Vienna-Hamburg via train. Geographically it was not an intelligent thing to do because I ended up spending most of the time in the train. But my idea was to experience as many places in the best possible way so that next time when I have more time on hand I know exactly where I would love to spend time more.

Mine was a typical backpack trip on a shoe string budget. I did not book myself into any hotel. I spent the night in the train traveling and spent the day sight seeing. You can also book yourself into bed and breakfast (B&B) kind of places where you can rent a place for 1 hour before you set on street.

I reached Paris, the fashion city early morning on a Saturday. The first thing I would suggest when you are traveling in a new city without a local guide is to locate the tourist information centre. Almost all the stations had a centre like this that could help you with a map and some local guidance. It is always a good idea to have at least a rough itinerary with you to enable you to ask specific questions and also avoiding wasting time in last minute planning. You can plan places you would like to visit etc via internet.

The underground rail (metro/bahns) is the fastest and the cheapest way to commute. Best will be to understand to read the map well. The train stations are fairly complexly built in Paris and you can be easily lost. For those who haven’t been exposed to the metros the easiest way to understand the map and the route is if you are traveling from A to B and you need to get down at X, check where X is from where you are currently located. If it on the way to A follow the direction on platform that shows A or vice versa. Cross over / changing lane is also easy if you have a map with you. All lines are marked in different colors and are numbered.

I visited the famous Notre Dame, Arch de Triumph, Eiffel tower and the famous Louvre. You need whole one day to see this art museum perhaps my only regret while in Paris since I didn’t have that much time with me. I am saving the Louvre for my next trip. There is an underground shopping mall with eating joints etc around the Louvre that you can check out as well. For the foodies, area around Arch de Triumph can also be a good option since there are multiple brasseries.

Forewarning to people visiting France, French people do not like non French speaking people and can get unpleasant to the extent of getting rude. Luckily I did not meet too many of them and surprisingly kept bumping into Indians. You have a souvenir shop near the Eiffel owned by a Gujarati, named Sajid who was quite helpful. You are also advised to take special care of your belongings especially your passport since there are frequent mugging cases in Paris.

After spending few hours in Paris I set off for Vienna. Something in my heart said that I would love Vienna and that is what truly happened. Vienna is a beautiful city with water canals running parallel to most of the roads, with colorful flower beds on road dividers and pleasant people.

Walking around and finding a direction on Vienna train station is simpler than that in Paris. I had read about the hop on and hop off bus service in Vienna. So after collecting the maps from the tourist information centre I headed for the State Opera the starting point for the sight seeing bus services. I took the U Bahn.

You have two options for bus service. You can either take a three hour tour with a guide with 1-2 stop over and costing around 36 Euros or you can opt for the hop on and hop off bus service costing 20 Euros which allows you to get off at the destination you choose and catch the next bus service (of same provider) after an hour or as per the schedule. I opted for the latter. You are given a ticket and the bus schedule. You have red line bus, blue line bus and a green line bus covering different routes and tourist spots. The bus starts at 1000 hrs and service till 1800 hours.

There is absolutely no way you will know which line (color) is the bus since there are no paint marks on the bus for identification. Hence, you just ask before getting into the bus. And all these buses start from State opera and return to the same spot right after 1 hour after dropping/ picking people from various spots.

I took the red line and got off at St Stephan’s Cathedral. Huge and magnificent. The cathedral is equally magnificent from inside. You can light up candles and also drop in your prayers in a drop box. There are multiple souvenir shops around the cathedral, so you can visit few of those before its time to catch the next bus. The cost range for any souvenir started from 3 Euros, which holds true for Hamburg and Paris. After picking few souvenirs I headed for the bus stop. You have clearly marked bus stops for hop on and hop off buses. So there is no question of getting lost.

I got off at Opera and took the green line to see the Schonbrunn and Belvedere. Both have two hours of stop so you can plan a quick lunch at one of these places since they both have eating joints within the complex. Schonbrunn is a beautiful palace citing history about Austrian art, culture, music and of course the royals. It was said that Mozart was a favorite musician of Maria Theresa the queen. You have multiple options of checking out the palace- short tour/ full palace tour only/ palace and garden tour etc. I took the 35 minutes Imperial tour which was the shortest tour of all. As you enter you get a walkie information system that serves dual purpose of giving you information about the palace as you wander and also tracking you for security reason. You can choose your language on the walkie. There is a nice souvenir shop inside the palace complex where you can pick the typical Austrian bells that most of have seen in Hindi bollywood movies. Vienna was cold while Paris was warmer. I decided to have hot cuppa coffee with some snacks overlooking the magnificent palace. It’s an experience beyond words.

Belvedere which means beautiful view truly lives upto its name, for it has gorgeous manicured gardens and view of almost all famous sites and monuments in Vienna. Fine collections of paintings have been preserved in this museum. The entrance will cost you 9 Euros and 3 euros additional if you would like to know more about Austrian art and how different it if from German art etc on a walkie. You will find here, glimpses of Klimt art- in paintings, in souvenir shops etc. You have a shop inside and one across the street opposite to the museum where you can pick up nice scarves, hand bags, with the famous Klimt’s The Kiss printed on it, notepads, info booklets, painted stones etc. Just that you will have to lighten your purse strings a bit.

I got back to the State Opera and got in a blue line bus with an intention of sight seeing from the bus. I saw and captured on my camera the Giant Ferris Wheel and the Danube Tower. The Halloween preparation was in the air as I found huge pumpkins decorated along with flowers on side walks and dividers. Though Halloween is an American concept but it is finding popularity in other western countries as well.

After spending the whole day at Vienna I headed back for Hamburg since I had few more days at office before leaving for India. All my shopping was done except for chocolates which I planned to pick from the duty free shop at the airport. My colleagues gave me Lebkuchen- a German cookie as a parting gift along with some Yogi tea! All in all it was a great and memorable trip to Europe and I am looking forward to visiting and ticking off many more places on the world map soon.

Few handy tips:
-Keep multiple copies of your passport and visa
-Keep copies of the photograph as it appears in the visa
-Banks will be the best place for money exchange
-Be conscious of your belongings
-Take print outs of local language common words from the net to help you communicate
-Chalk out the itinerary well in advance so that you are not lost after landing in the alien country
-Collect maps and all relevant information from the tourist info centre / hotel
-Hotels also have info flyers on activities happening in the month in the city (music, theatre etc)
-Try and arrange for adapters for your electronic items with 3 pins, though the hotels do have them at times. (fyi- The nokia phone charger does not need any adapter and works fine)
-Check out the weather forecast.
-For winters it is a good idea to carry boots/ closed shoes besides other warm clothes.
-If you prefer watching TV then carry DVDs and your laptop. But if you know the local language then no need to worry. All programs get broadcasted in German.
-Do not plan any shopping on Sunday as shops are closed except for the souvenir shops.

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