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FLORENCE     Florence –  the capital of the Tuscany region and the cradle of Renaissance   We opted for Flix Bus while traveling from Venice to Florence. The road journey takes about three and a half-hour. In Florence, it terminates at the rear end of Santa Maria Novella (SMN) train station. One of Italy’s busiest stations, it got its name from Santa Maria Novella Church just across the plaza from the main entrance. We debarked at the station and refreshed ourselves at McDonald's before hiring a cab for our hotel. Florence, popularly known as ‘Firenze’ by the Italians, is located in central Italy. This dreamy city with a romantic name is the regional capital of the lovely Tuscany region.   Columbus Hotel, where we stayed, is located in Lugarno District. We always prefer to book our hotels through Booking.com as we always land up getting good hotels at good locations. Despite being a little away from the heart of the city and Santa Maria Novella station


Cruising to Amsterdam ---- (Part 1)

Long time back I had travelled to Bangladesh by road. On the last phase of the journey, the bus moved on to a huge barge to be ferried across the mighty sea like river Padma for the final road to Dhaka. I recall the moment exhilaratingly exciting as that trip was my first brush with sailing. I could not rid my mind of the thrill of sailing, and finally the opportunity came when we planned our journey from England to Europe. We booked a luxury cruise with Stena Lines from Harwich port in England to Hook of Holland in Netherlands. Harwich is a seventeenth century maritime town in Essex. Greater Anglia rail runs around three dozen trains daily from Liverpool Street station in London, with journey time to Harwich of about two hours. We left for Harwich after lunch at my wife’s aunt’s house in Belmont, a tranquil little suburb south of London.  Belmont station is very close from their house, but it is a lonely, cute little station away from the main line. For more options, we were seen off at Sutton station by my wife’s uncle. We got down at Blackfriars station and from there took an underground Circle Line to Liverpool street station. There were two changeovers for the train to Harwich - Colchester and Manning tree.Manningtree is a small changeover station for Harwich. For convenience of Harwich passengers, a smaller train waits at platform 1. Passengers simply have to take a lift to crossover. The train to Harwich was virtually empty save a few local residents and a fewer tourists. The local residents were mostly family members and acquaintances travelling to their home town, and scattered in groups in the carriages. They were all clamorous, chatting, talking and laughing aloud, very similar to train journeys in India. And a very pleasant break from the scenes encountered in neighboring London and its suburbs.  We had tickets upto Harwich Town, but when we asked a co-passenger with the hotel address they asked us to get down at Dovercourt station which is between Harwich International and Harwich Town. We had to simply walk down to our hotel.  The Bottle Kiln is a Wetherspoon hotel cum pub. A very comfortable 4 star hotel with a lively pub at the ground floor. The pub offers real ales, a range of craft beers and food items, and remains open till late in the night. We had booked the hotel for one night so that we could report for the cruise next morning. We spent the evening strolling on the beautiful promenade along the Harwich beach, from where we could also view the old Lighthouse. The beach is a couple of minutes walk from our hotel. Next morning we hired a cab to take us to Harwich International Dockyard. It is like an airport where we had to go through the immigration formalities, and finally taken in a bus for boarding the cruise ship. As I stepped down from the bus at the car deck, I was awestruck like any first timer. The fact is I never knew how a luxury liner looks like. Like a multistoried hotel there are thirteen decks. Decks 9 to 11 are facilities and passenger decks. We took a lift to Deck 9, where like any village boy I gaped at the restaurants, bars, coffee bar, duty free Stena shopping centre, the Stena Plus lounge and other facilities. It was a great fun roaming around on glitzy Deck 9, stopping to have a sumptuous lunch in one of the restaurants and then finally basking for a while on the sun deck with beer before retiring for relaxing in our cabin. Our cabin was on Deck 10- like any star hotel room on land. Besides comfortable beds, en suite, a table fridge stuffed with wines, beers, and electric kettle for tea or coffee, cheese, ham, bread, biscuits, a TV and more to make sailing a luxurious lifetime experience. Lying on the bed one can have a lovely view of the North Sea through large round glass window in the cabin. While inside one has a feeling that the ship is stationery. We experienced the movement when we walked out to the sun deck. The sun deck is equipped with a bar and an enclosed football ground.There was a group of school children who were enjoying a game of football, and it was a great fun watching the ball strike the enclosure net and bounce back. The ship was moving at around its specified 20 knots, which if converted to land speed comes around 40 to 45 miles per hour. It was delightful to watch the long chain of white froth as the giant liner lurched forward. Sailing to Hook of Holland (Hoek Van Holland) takes roughly seven hours. At Hook of Holland the bus stop is located right outside the exit gate. As our booking was upto Amsterdam, the bus connected us to Schiedam Central rail station, where we boarded a train to Amsterdam Central. And after a couple of hours, we were at Amsterdam. I have been here once before, and I liked the vibrant nature of the metropolis. Outside the station is a sprawling jazzy square with canals, tram stops, metro station, an old building with dome like structure and a large clock dominating the place with its beautiful appearance. While my wife waited outside the metro entrance, I crossed the tram lines to purchase 48 hours GVB tickets which can be used for endless rides in trams, buses, metros, ferries in Amsterdam. We took the Line 51 metro and got off at Kronenburg. It is an overground station on Amstelveen line, where right across was our hotel ibis. There are many places of interest in Amsterdam but we chose to restrict our visits to houses of some notable residents of the city, like Rembrandt and Anne Frank (more in the next part). An interesting fact about this tiny Kronenburg station, from where we commuted to the city centre, is that both metro and tram operates from the same station, same platform. As trams are also high speed there, we opted for trams so that way we could see the city properly. Tram no.5 runs from Kronenburg to Amsterdam Central, which is located in the heart of the city centre.  There we took a ride in Amsterdam’s canals.And as we sailed history unfolded. The canal district is under UNESCO World Heritage site, as the canal network is as old as the 17th century buildings lining up on either side of the canals.Also known as Grachtenyondel in Dutch,the district crossed 400 years in 2013. The most remarkable were the three buildings named Dancing Houses, tall and tilted historical structures resembling a dancing posture. All these canal houses(Grachtenhuizen) are located at Damrak.After a day's outing, I remember embroiled in a funny tiff with the tram driver of tram no.5 while boarding the tram at Central. In order to check whether the tram goes to Kronenburg, I went upto the driver and asked him. ‘Koenenburrr!–No’ was the reply in heavy accent. When I insisted that I had come by the same tram no., the driver growled at me saying that he has been driving since last 40 years and never heard about the place. A lady boarding the tram came to our rescue and finally we boarded that tram and got down at KronenburgBut there is no denying of the fact that the city's public transport system, including tram service, is excellent. Riding a tram through the heart of the city unfolds a vista of a vibrant and colourful Amsterdam. The Dam square, the sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings of typical Dutch architecture housing offices, hotels, restaurants, pubs, the world famous red light district offering voyeuristic views through glass windows(the only place on earth where shows are legal),numerous bridges criss crossing the canals - all deftly and beautifully integrated to give the city a unique character and charm.

View of canal from a bridge at Amsterdam

Promenade at Harwich Town

Harwich International Dockyard Terminal

Inside Stena Lines Cabin

Stena Lines Cabin

View of North Sea from Stena Lines Deck

A Football game on Stena Lines Cruise Ship

A Pub in Stena Lines

A Pub in Stena Lines

Sun Deck on Stena Lines

Kronenburg metro and tram station at Amsterdam South



View of  the old city of Amsterdam from boat 

Amsterdam Canal

Historical Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge- a draw bridge over the river Amstel from where the name Amsterdam was derived), which opens to let ships and boats to pass through. A local legend says that the wooden bridge was constructed at the behest of two skinny sisters who lived on either side of the river and wanted to visit each other.The original bridge was so narrow that it was difficult for two persons to cross each other. It was widened in 1870.

Amsterdam Canal

View of Dancing House from Amsterdam Canal

17th century Dancing House

Canal district at Amserdam

Waiting for Tram at Amsterdam

Canal and Bridge


A close view of one of the old buildings lining the canal  (built in 1695) and now housing a cafe at the ground level.The age of this house is almost same as the age of my city Calcutta which was founded by Job Charnock of Britain in 1690.
Old houses lining up on the waterway of Amsterdam

Boat ride on Amsterdam Canal

Pic Courtesy : Arundhati Sengupta

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