Wednesday, April 3, 2019

How to get a Schengen Visa?

 So after many long discussions (or arguments), you and your travel buddies have finally settled on Europe as your next trip destination. Great! Well, the next step is not so great and will test how much you really want to visit Europe.
Don't take it lightly. Many weak-spirited men and women have given up the idea of their dream trip and resorted to visiting some nearby visa-friendly destinations.
But be strong and keep on checking out few pictures of European cities now and then to keep your resolve firm.

1. What is Schengen Visa?
    This is the golden ticket which you need if you are planning to visit any of these 26 countries in Europe.
    - Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

Schengen visa can be issued by any of the participating country but the rules and processing duration may slightly vary from embassy to embassy.

2. When to Apply?
    You can apply for a visa at minimum 10 days or maximum 3 months before your intended date of travel. But needless to say, apply as early as possible to avoid last minute panic.
    Being an early bird has 3 benefits :
    a. In case of any missing/incorrect documents, you can provide corrections or alternatives. You get the time for the to and fro with the embassy.
    b. Since, most probably, you would make all bookings before applying for visa, you do not want the courier guy to be holding your passport while your flight takes off.
   c. Peace of mind.

3. Roadmap - Dates and places
    Once you have identified the countries you wish to travel, chalk out an itinerary. Shortlist the cities/countries you are interested in and decide on how many days you want to spend in each. Now, list them down in the order you would be visiting them. That is your itinerary. Only after figuring this out, move to next step. Here is the itinerary that we followed.

4. Travel Agent or not?
     We started with consulting an agency but then later on went ahead with applying by ourselves as the process looked simple enough.
    For you it might depend upon how much time you can spend on planning your trip. In case you are a busy bee, its best to contact some travel agency and go with a predefined package that they offer. This option is best for first-timers or aged people who would rather comfortably enjoy, knowing that someone has already taken care of their journey. It saves them from confusing and tricky situations in a foreign land.

    If you are looking to create your own custom plan, good for you, because that is how we should travel, right. As per our interests and pace. Not in a "arrive, click, next stop" format. At many places, we saw hordes of people arrive in a bus, someone then herding them and telling them the time they can spend at the place, clicking pictures at every angle they could think of and then leave for the next stop. I just cannot imagine myself traveling like that. I wonder if they really saw the place without their camera lenses. Needless to say, custom plan is also the cheaper option.

Having decided on either of the above two option, you need to start collecting your documents for the visa which again can be applied via travel agents or personally. Its not a very difficult choice, since travel agents will ask you to furnish the same list of docs that VFS does. So better do this yourself to save the service charges of agents. Read on to know about the documents needed.

5. How to Apply?
    Visa for many European countries are facilitated by VFS Global.  
    Now you need to book an appointment with VFS Global for visa application.
Visa appointments are not very readily available. The first available slot could be 1 week or even 1 month away. So, get a checklist of documents from the VFS site. Scan what all you have and what you need to apply for (like certain ids, marriage certificate in some cases). If everything looks okay, take the appointment. Start collecting your documents only after taking the appointment.
Check this official link with process details. (Ignore the bit about providing the documents in Italian)

6. Document checklist :
Official checklist - This link is a concise compilation of what is required. But a google search brings up so many websites and blogs that recount 'n' number of extra documents that are not even needed. (One of the travel consultant advised my husband to get a signed consent from my father. Why in the world!!). My advice would be to stick to this list.

The basic thing that visa guys are looking for is how sound you are financially and that you do not plan to live in Europe as illegal migrant later on. For this, they check how well connected to your family, job and country you are.

Although official site does a pretty job, I would add helpful one-liners here for the docs needed.

a. Passport/Travel Document : Pretty obvious.

b. Visa Application Form : same as above

c. Cover Letter : Short summary of your plans. Include the purpose of visit, members travelling with you, brief travel plan and how you plan to sponsor your trip. Be concise and write point-wise with proper headings.

d. NOC from employer : This is very easily obtained from the HR department. Chances are that they already have a format for such requests. Else, you could chalk out one yourself and get it stamped by HR. This is important as it tells the embassy that you have a stable job in your home country and are not looking to run away for work elsewhere.

e. Travel Itinerary : Your dated schedule of all places of visit. More details here.

f.  Financial Status : ITR, salary slips, attested bank statements, employment letter etc. Make sure you have balance in your account from as early as possible. Last minute transfers look fishy. Funds should cover per person per day cost of 80 euros atleast to be on safe side.

g. Overseas medical insurance : Required for the duration of your travel. Major insurance companies give custom plans for different geographical region. You can compare 2-3 plans and easily buy one online

h. Air Tickets : This is what scares the first-timers most. With costly air-tickets and chances of visa being rejected/delayed, one fears purchasing tickets in advance. Although we got advice from friends that visa rejection case is very rare if the documents are all available and finances are adequately mentioned, we still did not take confirmed tickets in advance. Instead, we went ahead with flight reservations/itinerary booked online. This reservation is simply a token booking that is valid for the embassy to cross-check the itinerary and costs a fraction of the actual amount. Once the visa was approved, we booked actual tickets. It is actually advised by the embassy itself to prefer reservations over confirm ticket.

That broadly covers the process and tips for getting a Schengen visa. If I have missed something or you need more details on some point, do point out in the comment section. Hope I helped in lightening up your Booking Blues!! :D


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Italy-Switzerland itinerary

 Two beautiful countries. Tons of history. Beautiful paintings, sculptures, monuments and wallpaper sceneries. Italy and Switzerland make quite a couple. One ancient and mature with thousands of years of the history, art, culture, stories and monuments while the other sits innocently in the lap of nature, with meadows, lakes and snow-capped mountains everywhere. Long as your vacation might be, it will always leave you wanting for more.

Before you start looking at your flight options, do check if you are one of those unlucky ones that need a visa to the schengen area.

One primary ingredient to the visa recipe would be the trip itinerary. So as soon as your mind is set, pin the places you would love to visit down to specific dates and list them up in order for the dear embassy.

So here's a brief itinerary of my sweet 12-day trip to Italy and Switzerland.

1. Rome (The Eternal City) - 3 days

    Spent 3 wonderful days trotting up and down the cobbled streets of the eternal city. From one monument to the other, having pizzas and gelatos and grinning to selfies, time simply flies. Rome is enchanting even to those who are not history buffs and to spend 3 days is simply taking a sniff of a vintage wine.

2. Pisa (For all the crooked ones :P) - 1/2 day

Leaning Tower & the Cathedral
    Quaint  little Tuscan town made famous by the leaning tower. Once recognized as one of the wonders of the world, its a perfect half day trip from Florence.

3. Venice - 2 days

Rialto Bridge
   City unlike any other, literally. If you are in Italy, you have to see Venice.
   Undoubtedly the romance capital of the world. The mood here is always festive, with cool breeze blowing over the cool canals. Canals adorned by the gondolas give a very royal look. Its just out of this world.

4. Interlaken - 2 days

Green is in!
      Vast stretches of grasslands, cows grazing with bells around their necks, surrounded by mountains and the emerald lakes on either side, Interlaken is indeed a one-stop experience for all Swiss delights. Excursion to Mt. Jungfraujoch start from here.

5. Kanderstag - 1 day

Tobaggan Run
    Mountain tobaggan, meadows, hiking trails and a lake. If you love all these, one day is surely less. My favorite in this list.

6. Lucerne - 2 days

Chapel Bridge
  Larger city than Interlaken. Base for various mountain excursions like Mt. Titlis, Mt. Pilatus and Mt. Rigi.

7. Zurich - 1 day

     One of the most expensive shopping streets in the world, Zurich is an important Swiss city and offers good flight connections in and out of Switzerland but seemed to offer less to the tourists.

Some alternatives to the above itinerary:

Although above travel plan was as per my taste and research, you could also look at following if you have a longer journey or just want some more options. These are almost on the same route and easier to accomodate.

1. Florence

    - Add this if you want to enjoy art and culture of Tuscany. Visiting Pisa from here is easier and flexible as there are many train options at very short intervals whole day.

2. Milan

   - One of the largest cities in Italy better known as a fashion hub. Stop here for some shopping of renowned Italian brands, visiting the Duomo or even Leonardo Da Vinci's famous painting 'The Last Supper' (it requires an advance reservation which are booked very early). 

3. More of Switzerland

  - If you love hills more than plains/coast, ditch Italy completely and journey far and across Swiss hinterland. Go on a full on Bollywood tour, tracing the steps of Raj and Simran (DDLJ) in Montreux, Gstaad, Zweissimen, Interlaken. You can even pose alongside the cutouts of DDLJ on Mt. Titlis(Luzern).

I will be coming up with detailed guide for each of these cities shortly. Till then, do let me know your views in Comment section.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

October Trip to Goa

"Goa is not a State. Its a State of mind." 
It is virtually impossible to define Goa in a single sentence. Goa is different for every traveller. Its like the clear water that takes on the color of your mood.

It is adventurous yet peaceful, religious yet romantic, festive yet tranquil, desi yet foreign. From the dense western ghats to the endless beaches dotting its coastline, from the thundering waterfalls to quiet churches, it has something for everyone. And that is the reason it has carved a niche for itself in Indian tourism.
Goa :)
Goa is a veteran among all tourist destinations since long time back, even before IT industry was exploding with expansion, stressing out its professionals during the weekdays, and starting the trend of weekend tourism, sprouting quick getaways around metros.

 You find in Goa, what you seek. Come to find peace and recluse, you have the pristine beaches. If you yearn for adventure and thrill, water sports are just the answer. Maybe some party and booze, no dearth of that either on Baga Beach. You are a nature and wildlife freak, head straight to the DudhSagar falls and reserves. Or if you are on a break from your chaotic life, just laze around the water...like this kitty.

I remember our planning of family vacation in Goa when I was little. It used to come up every year during summer holidays but something or the other left it unfulfilled.
So finally, this October I visited Goa with some friends.

Day 1: Aguada fort, the Lighthouse and Sinquerim Beach:

Faced extreme weather on this day. Strong sun in the day and heavy rain in the evening. Aguada fort is quite spacious and provides nice view of the sea. Although, you might face some trouble trying to move over-zealous tourists from the view-points to get a decent snap.

LightHouse at Aguada Fort
Trying to bring it home.. Good luck Anita
Aguada Fort Entry
Sinquerim Beach

"Don’t grow up too quickly, lest you forget how much you love the beach." Michelle Held
Water sports @ Sinquerim Beach
Sinquerim Beach

Day 2 : Panjim (Panaji Church, Donna Paula, Miramar Beach) :

"2 October ko hum Panaji gaye the"....par humne Swami Chinmayanand ji ka Satsang nhi suna. Who remembers Drishyam dialog.. :)

Panjim Church
We started our visit with the famous Panaji Church on this dry day. White church against the blue sky is a sight to behold. But sight was all we got from it. Tourists were not allowed inside as a service was going on. So we headed to the Donna Paula Point. 
Donna Paula Point
 On the way back, we visited Miramar Beach. The weather had become awesome by now. The clouds and rainbow and sunset, all at once. We tried for some shadow photography against the setting sun and were quite pleased with our novice efforts.
Two suns..
A Full Rainbow!!
Barahsingha found on the beach!! :)
Up in the air.... almost
We spent the rest of the evening shopping for dresses and junk jewellery at the Calangute beach. Got a good bargain too :)

Day 3 : Water Sports at Candolim Beach 

Aaj kuch Toofani karte hain...!!! Water sports are a must on a Goa trip. We got a package for Rs.1300 per head at Candolim Beach. The package included Bumper Ride, Jet Ski, Banana Ride and Parasailing.
Green waters at Candolim Beach
Bumper Ride : It was a flat raft with two handles in front. One had to lie on their stomach and hold the handles tightly. The raft was then pulled for a bumpy high-speed ride over the waves, into the sea. One slip and you are in the lap of the sea itself. The whole ride felt like clothes being jerked hard to dry.

Jet Ski: This was a casual water-scooter ride.
Jet Ski
Banana Ride: This one is special and a must for the adventurer in you. Effect is more if you are a non-swimmer which we all were. All people are seated on a banana shaped raft one after the other and taken into the sea by a motor boat. Then somewhere the boatman says "leave" and takes a sharp turn throwing everyone in the water. It is very easy here to panic and gulp a lot of seawater. But keep calm and enjoy the sea. Life-jacket holds quite well if you do not panic or move around frantically. The boatman lifted us all up after a while.
Google search reference for Banana Ride
Parasailing: This one was also enjoyable. You get a bird's eye view from the top. For Rs. 200 extra, he offered to dip us in the sea a little. It was worth the money.

Day 4 : DudhSagar Falls, Old Goa (Basilica of Bom Jesus) & Baga Beach

Dudhsagar Falls are a beauty made famous by various movies like Chennai Express. These are among the tallest falls in India and in monsoon season are quite gigantic too. Our initial plan was to trek along the railway tracks to the falls. But due to lack of time and energy, we chose the comfortable jeep ride to the base of the falls through Mahavir Reserve. There is a morning local train from Madgaon to Kulem. At Kulem, one can hire jeep to the falls or embark on a rail trek of 12 km. 
DudhSagar falls
Jeep trail crosses streams
Stream in the forest
 The jeep ride turned out to be equally exciting. The jeep took us through dense forests, over the streams and finally to the falls. It was fun swimming in the pool formed by the falls. Life jackets are a boon to non-swimmers.

Base of DudhSagar falls
A boat afraid to leave the harbour... :)
This area is very rich in flora and fauna. Jeep driver showed us cashew trees on our way. Many species of beautiful butterflies are also found here. One of them became friends with my sandals.

On the way to the falls
Same pinch!!
On our way back, we visited Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa. This church preserves sacred relics of the body of St. Francis Xavier(1696). It is one of the oldest church in India.
Basilica of Bom Jesus(Old Goa)
Front View of Basilica
Relics of St. Francis Xavier

Day 5 : Anjuna Beach, Vagator Beach , Chapora Fort

The last day was mainly spent on beaches. But the harsh sun made it a little less fun, and a lot more tan. We visited Anjuna and Vagator beach. From the Vagator beach, the nearby Chapora fort is a mere 1.3 km. Famous Goa scene of movie "Dil Chahta Hai" was shot here.
Anjuna Beach
Every dog has its day..  Vagator Beach
View of Chapora Fort from Vagator Beach
View from Chapora Fort
Thus ended our first trip to Goa. We came back happily with lots of pics and a lot of tan. Now our web searches have changed from "Places to visit in Goa" to "How to remove tan quickly".

Life sahi hai, tension nahi hai :)

1. Sit back and relax. You are in Goa.
2. Carry light clothes. Temperature is usually warm.
3. A good sunscreen is a must. Don't forget to use it though.
4. Try hiring scooty/bikes on a weekday for your whole trip. Weekend charges are high.
5. Jeep trail to Dudhsagar falls is closed during monsoons. Water sports too. They both start from October.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Once upon a time in Mahabaleshwar...

"Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather." - John Ruskin
Western ghats are at their enchanting best during the monsoons. One can easily fall in love with all the eye-blinding greenery, caressed by waterfalls and streams of all sizes and sporting the ever present canopy of fluffy dark clouds that threaten to play holi with you any second.
Nonetheless, those few among us (yes there are quite a few), who would for once like to enjoy a view of green valley from mountain tops undeterred by the incessant rains, must consider planning a visit just as the monsoon slows i.e. in September.
Arthur Point, Mahabaleshwar
Splendid view of valley
So around last week of September, when my sister was visiting, I quickly came up with a plan to visit Mahabaleshwar. My friend Nikhil also agreed to join us. The only drawback was that it was a same day return trip, much to my displeasure. But that makes it a handy guide for  a quick one day visit to the place.
Pune-Bengaluru Highway
Photogenic highway
We booked a full day cab and left Pune early on the Sunday morning, at around 6 am to avoid weekend rush. Taking the Pune-Bengaluru Highway NH4, moving towards Bengaluru. Small hills started pretty soon and my sister was getting more and more impressed by the fact that I live in such a beautiful place (as if my office was somewhere on the hill top).
I clicked pictures for a while and then settled to complete my nap.

Mahabaleshwar valley
One of the valley view
On the way, we fueled ourselves with Maharashtra's most loved breakfast i.e. kandha-poha with chai and continued our journey. After travelling for 2 hours and about 105 km, we reached Panchgani. Here we paid an entry tax and moved forward towards the Table Point. It was practically empty as we were quite early. It is a vast expanse of flat top surrounded by lower valley area populated with some villages.
I could imagine the magnificence of this place in monsoon.

Table Top, Panchgani
@ Panchgani
It was sunny so we clicked a few pics and continued to Mahabaleshwar.

Mahabaleshwar tourist map
Mahabaleshwar tourist map
After paying entry tax in Mahabaleshwar as well, we made our first stop at Venna Lake. We were so early that boating had not yet started.
The weather was perfect with clear blue sky and bright sunshine. The lake looked a sapphire blue color, totally in love with the sky. It seemed nature was grinning at us.

Venna lake
Venna lake

Boating at Venna lake
Venna lake after sunset
At 10 am, the boats became ready for us. One boat ride costs Rs. 300 total and maximum capacity was 6 other than the boatman. So we chipped in with a family of 3.

Boating at Venna lake
Sis & me

There were plenty of stalls selling roasted corn, carrots, mulberries, strawberries etc.

Carrots and berries
Lots of vitamin A in single pic

From here we headed on to various view points. There are quite a few in Mahabaleshwar like Echo Point, Savitri Point, Arthur Seat, Malcolm point, Elphinstone point, Marjorie point, Kate's Point, Needle Point.
So the afternoon was spent hopping from one point to the other while the sun was hopping between the clouds that had appeared out of nowhere. The valley looked so beautiful covered with greenery and floating clouds and mist of the river beneath.

Echo Point
@Echo Point

Arthur Point

Named after a British officer who lost his wife and son in a ferry accident in Savitri river.
At some places, we were not able to see the view because of the clouds. Instead it became a perfect white background to take a passport photo. It looked like little clouds were floating up above and among us. Ethereal.

Clouds at Arthur Point
Heavy clouds over the valley
The surroundings had become cooler due to the clouds. I could enjoy sitting and watching the view forever but we had many points to cover yet.

Clouds at Arthur Point
Yup, the background is perfect..
Clouds at Arthur Point
@Arthur Point

Savitri Point

Here you can see Savitri river at the bottom of the valley. But due to clouds and mist, the river was playing hide and seek with us.

Sidewalk at Savitri Point
Near Savitri Point

Now this is some scenery. Who would say it is in India.
Savitri river valley
Savitri Point
Yellow flowers
Vying for attention!
Best point to get poetic or philosophical. (Not to be confused with suicidal :P)
Savitri Point valley
Absorbing the melancholy @Savitri Point :D

Back from Savitri point

Panchganga Temple

Source of five rivers namely Koyna, Venna, Gayatri, Savitri and Krishna. Photography inside is prohibited.

Panchganga temple
Panchganga Temple

Mahabaleshwar Temple

Lingmala Falls

Lingmala falls
Lingmala Falls
Now this is a gem which is surprisingly lesser known. Three tiered falls created by Venna river before continuing in the long valley are a sight to behold. I will have to visit again in monsoon sometime to see the falls in full vigour.

With a major help from GPS, we were able to find our way to the falls.

The falls are nearer to the Venna lake. The road till there is narrow but beautiful. Also, the site closes by 5.30 pm in the evening. Not recommended for people with joints problem as there are many steps followed by about 1 km walk to the point where you can see the full view of falls.
Smaller falls are also there which form a pool in front where you can have fun in water if you take a change of clothes.

Lingmala falls Doh
Smaller falls or 'Doh '

Venna Valley
Venna valley
Now it was starting to get dark, so we said our goodbyes to Mahabaleshwar and headed back home, only stopping to make a customary stop at Mapro gardens which are famous for their strawberry farms, fruit crushes, jams and everything sweet. There were so many varieties in fruit crushes and you can taste the flavor for free before buying.

Mapro gardens
Diabetics stay away!
Although the trip had ended, we were truly content with what we could make of it in a single day. The place really deserves about 2-3 days of stay to soak in the beauty it offers. The standstill views of the valley and clouds and mountains should not be hurriedly seen.

Maybe it was a good thing. Now I will have to visit Mahabaleshwar again some time. Looking forward to the next trip. :)