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Our family reunion in Europe
We've been fortunate to have travelled to 40+ countries, and lived in Moscow over four years during my service tenure. During our trip to Europe, way back in 1990, I had a dream to visit Europe again when children grow up and get settled.

Our son and two daughters have been travelling internationally with us from their early years. All of them grown up, both daughters settled with their families in America and son now in India with us, are big advocates of overseas travel. This year we got a proposal to consider a family gathering in Europe allowing time for children and teenagers to play and get to know each other better.

There was a lot of excitement amongst cousins (and grownups) to avail of this opportunity to meet and enjoy their summer holidays together. After months of preparations and exchange of ideas on the WhatsApp and FaceTime, it was decided to cover Italy and Austria in this trip.

Finally, our itinerary covered the must-see sights covering the majestic Rome, a countryside stay in Tuscany, the romantic gondola cruise of Venice, a train journey in the scenic Alps — picturesque Innsbruck and Salzburg. With its beautiful scenery, historic cities, iconic landmarks, our family reunion almost provided fun for everyone. We all were now eagerly looking to be at the ancient capital of the Western worldRome that offers over 2500 years of history. It was my long cherished desire to visit Italy well known for immensely rich historical heritage. We were six from India and eight from America meeting in Rome, Italy on 4th June 2018.

We all assembled at Hotel Sheraton Roma and had a small celebration before dinner exchanging gifts and rejoicing the joy of having complete family at one place and one time. Children had a really good treat feasting on pasta and pizza, the two traditional Italian dishes. Our daughters recalled how we had dreamt to meet again somewhere in Europe 28 years back. Our son thanked us both for our unshakeable determination and faith in realizing our cherished dream come true. Though a wee bit old, we both are tremendously thankful to the Almighty for the health and energy to pursue our dreams making it possible to hold this family reunion.

Rome

Following morning, we had planned to visit Vatican City, St. Peters Basilica, Sistine Chapel and many other attractions in a Full day sightseeing tour by a chartered minibus.

At St Paul Basilica, we were delighted to meet Ola as our tour guide. The guide told us that the original basilica burned down in the 19th century, but many of the original treasures survived. Narrating vivid history about the town and the umbrella shaped trees existing from ancient times, our guide took us next to St Peter's Basilica. We were told that this is the holiest and the largest Catholic Church in the world, located on the Vatican Hills. We were stunned to see the priceless artworks of Michelangelo and other famous artists and found it to be as one of the calmest places. Outside the sprawling St. Peters square, the open space has been designed so that a large number of people could see the Pope give his blessing.

Next morning we visited Colosseum – another of Rome's top attractions named as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. This magnificent piece of architecture was used for gladiator fights, chariot races, animal hunts and executions. The ruins speak a history during which time it has been the seat of the Roman Kingdom. Having seen Ben-Hur, Julius Caesar, Gladiators and other movies one can imagine the brutal history hidden underneath these ruins. This was basically the place for Romans to be entertained, but it was important also to display the greatness of their Empire. Once a venue for more than 50,000 excited Roman spectators watching everything from gladiatorial contests to merciless executions, today, it holds the title of the largest amphitheater in the world, standing as a testament to the imagination and ability of the Roman Empire.

While we both rested for a while, youngsters wandered nearby and enjoyed a spectacular view of other ruins including old temples, buildings and Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill. Palatine Hill is supposedly where Romans founded the city of Rome in 753 BC. Later, we strolled around stopping at main Roman sites such as the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Piazza Navona. Along the way, we stopped at cafes and thoroughly enjoyed the Gelato for the day before returning to Hotel seeing ancient Rome's major attractions.

We were overjoyed to see the jubilant crowd at Trevi Fountain clicking nonstop photos. Designed in 1762 by Italian architect Nicola Salvi, the fountain stands 86 ft high and 161 ft wide. The fountain's façade depicts the story of Aqua Virgo, one of the aqua ducts that supplied water to the city for nearly 400 years. During this self-guided walking tour, perhaps we set a record for senior citizens walking 22000 steps in a day.

There is no better preserved ancient Roman building than the Pantheon in Rome; and one of the top landmarks in Rome, a 2000-year-old former Roman temple. It became a Roman Catholic Church in the 7th Century and has seen a number of Christian modifications since. Built in around 126 AD the building has its massive entrance. We were surprised to learn that its magnificent dome is the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. After a hectic day, we returned to our Hotel enjoying a Gelato on our way back.

Tuscany

Our next stoppage was the Vatican City, a country inside the State of Vatican City – universally recognised to be an independent country. Ola was a great guide and gave us the history, and story of the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. Our tour included lunch inside the Vatican's Pinecone Courtyard. We strolled through enormous complex and discovered Italy's most treasured art. Historical treasures by some of World's most distinguished artists namely Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo Da Vinci paintings (to name a few) depicts the revolutionary ideas of the medieval era.

Another important sight was that of Swiss Guards who are known for their ferocity and valour. The guards normally wear blue doublets and blue berets (are among the oldest uniforms for which they are famous). Our guide told us that it took many years painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and gave more details about how Michelangelo completed this laborious artwork around 1510. Our 6 hours tour was very informative as Ola was very knowledgeable and friendly throughout the tour. On return, we enjoyed Gelato in different flavours in one of the most famous chain in Rome.

Having stayed 3 nights in Sheraton, next on agenda was to discover the Tuscan countryside. Tuscany is in North-Eastern Italy and is known for its beautiful landscape, wine and food. After breakfast, we boarded our chartered bus heading north to Siena located in the heart of Tuscany. The last stretch, in particular into Siena was awesome. After a scenic drive past the vineyards, we arrived in one and a half hours drive in Siena. We strolled through the streets, going around the Siena's stunning Cathedral, the central square, and other museums, admiring this 12th century world heritage listed town. It was lovely to wander and explore the colourful, vibrant old town in a carefree way. The city has its own charm. The town has an interesting history and is in a convenient location on way to Greve in Chianti. Visiting Siena is like going back in time to medieval Italy, where everything is still preserved to the time it was first built. We enjoyed the beauty and uniqueness of Siena and were fascinated to find absolutely no cars or traffic on the roads. In fact, this short visit wasn't enough to enjoy the splendour of Siena.

With tight time schedule, we continued driving through the winding roads to other hilltop villages overlooked by miles of vineyards. Not to miss other towns in the area, our next destination was San Gimignano- another UNESCO world heritage site, where we briefly stopped at one of the crystal outlets. The historic city is a delight to wander with narrow lanes winding through the massive buildings. We took a brief break for lunch in one of the Cafes located in the centre of town overlooking the picturesque landscape of the rolling hills. Moving further through the terrain, we were now at the La Veronica Resorts in Greve. The resort is beautifully located, offering stunning views across the Tuscan hills. Relaxed over a drink, we enjoyed this boutique hotel so carefully selected and reserved by Radhika Anuj for 2 nights in this beautiful location. Kids had their own entertainment going around and playing by the poolside. We all had a great time here. This place offers the beautiful views of surrounding Chianti countryside and had an elegant, warm-hearted and welcoming vibe. The rooms were very tastefully decorated having a vintage touch. Our entire stay was like a dream holiday at this enchanting resort. The colourful flowers tempted us to hang out in the garden. We enjoyed our morning breakfast in the relaxing pergola leaving behind some unforgettable memories. Next morning we visited nearby destinations.

Florence

We got down at the drop point near the river Arno. The first thing that impressed us was the skyline of the Brunelleschi's red cathedral dome with a high tower next to it. Strolling along the bank we enjoyed the stunning view and continued walking towards the famous Ponte Vecchio – the old bridge. Everyone clicked a number of photos. Though a bridge, actually it is a covered "corridor" constructed on top of the bridge stores. This massive structure is a "closed" bridge as no cars or traffic passes over it. It is thought to date back as far as the Romans. Here are the landmarks that we covered in a self-guided walking tour of Florence taking help of an app available on the Google Trips.

Strolling through the city we made our way to Uffizi, Piazzale Michaelangelo, II Duomo di Firenze, Mercato Centrale, Galleria dell' Accademia, covering a wide photographic session of the scenic town full of beautiful buildings. Being short of time, we missed visiting the museums to admire the works of art of famous painters. We admired the replica of Michelangelo's David, placed at the Piazza Della Signoria. The original sculpture "The David", Michelangelo (1501 – 1504) is in the Accademia known to be the most famous statue in the world! There are also some unfinished works by Michelangelo, the "Prisoners", which made us understand as for how he carved the massive blocks of marble in those days.

Piazza Della Signoria is an open square, the statues under the loggia are also open so you don't have to pay. The statue of Perseo holding Medusa's head, by Benvenuto Cellini (1554), is a stark reminder of what happened to those who crossed the Empire. After a long walk, it was time for lunch. Rati Vivek threw lunch in one of the restaurants as a token celebration to their Silver Anniversary due in August this year. We relished the sumptuous authentic traditional food along with Chianti's local red wine.

Our impression of Florence

Looking back to photos, no words can aptly describe the happy moods captured in those few moments. Photos refresh the old memories and the scenic beauty of the town. Words can't describe how much we loved being in Florence. The town has so much history, you can feel it with every step. Wish if we had more time to explore the beauty. Italian art has influenced several major movements throughout the centuries and has produced several great artists, including painters, architects, and sculptors. After half a day's tour, we spent the later part of the day visiting Pisa.

Pisa

We reached Pisa in good time and got down from the bus heading towards the Leaning Tower of Pisa, known to be one of the most remarkable architectural structures and amongst one of the wonders of the world. After a short walk past some colourful shops, we approached, what seemed to be a section of an ancient wall and passed through a gate. Just across beautiful green lawns stretched out in front of us were the Baptistery, the cathedral, and last, but not the least the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Pisa tower is one of the four buildings that make up the cathedral complex in Pisa, called Campo dei Miracoli or Piazza dei Miracoli, which means Field of Miracles. The construction of Tower of Pisa began in August 1173 and continued for about 200 years due to the onset of a series of wars. Till today, the name of the architect is a mystery. The Leaning Tower of Pisa was designed as a circular bell tower that stands 185 feet high. It leans because it was built on unstable soil and until 1990 was leaning at about a 10 degree angle. It is constructed of white marble. The tower has eight stories, including the chamber for the bells.

Venice

Having enjoyed a dream holiday in the Chianti region, it was time to visit Venice known to be most beautiful and unbelievably romantic destination. Our package included a private tour by Gondola on a short 3 hours brisk tour of Venice.

Straight from the Trochetto parking, we purchased return tickets from Vaporetto ticket booth for the entire family group of 14 members. We were on the Grand Canal of Venice supposed to be the most spectacular "high street" in the world. Standing on the bow, in front of the pilot cabin, we were admiring Venetian magnificent palaces and other historic buildings across the canal. It was a lifetime experience to see such a beautiful view of gondolas gently driven through this unique city, surrounded by the Lagoon and crossed by canals. Taking a 45 minutes ride on this public water bus, we were at the most famous sight of St Mark's Basilica. While being transferred to the private gondolas, we experienced one of the most truly Venetian moments during a 30-minute gondola ride. Thanks to the privileges covered under our cruise package. Group riding in 3 separate gondolas admired the magical beauty of this unique city clicking photos of its most iconic symbols. We enjoyed passing through the minor canals of Venice passing under the Rialto Bridge, to discover the hidden side of Venice. Children too were equally enthusiastic about sharing joy going around one of the most beautiful cities in the whole world. Our ride covered some of the top tourist attractions in Venice - the magnificent Saint Mark's Basilica, the lavish Doge's Palace, and the Rialto Bridge. Recalling back, I admit that our trip to Italy would not have been completed without a visit to this enchanting gem full of art and culture. Looking to our stream of the photo album, one can recount and get immersed in those fabulous moments of Gondola ride that we would ever cherish.

Just after an enjoyable and romantic Gondola ride, we rushed to the Tronchetto stop to take a monorail to Piazzale Roma, pulled our baggage and crossed another bridge to get into San Lucia Rail Station. Our onward journey to Innsbruck was by train. In absence of markings, we found the distance of few minutes filled with turbulent moments. Our train journey was, however, so enchanting that we forgot this inconvenience in no time. Europe has the most efficient and comfortable train network offering high-speed access connecting major cities. We thoroughly enjoyed looking out through huge panoramic windows the dolomite mountain trails and the sublime scenery of the Alps. Late in the evening, as we reached Innsbruck, it started drizzling and the weather became even more pleasant. Checked in Hotel Weiss Ross situated in the heart of the city. Our hotel was just 500m from Goldenes Dachi - a landmark structure located in the Old Town. It is considered to be the city's most famous symbol.

Innsbruck

Next morning going around the Golden Roof, we walked through the old town to the funicular railway, close by to the palace. On way, we admired the Imperial Palace (Hofburg). Today, we had planned a cable car ride in the Hungerburg Funicular to the Nordkette mountain range-heights of the Alpine terrain. We did not need to purchase our tickets as Anuj had already taken the Innsbruck card for everyone. Touching the card to the entrance card reader, the gate opened and we were inside the cable car platform. The same procedure was followed for the second cable car. Just 20 minutes later, we were at the 7,500 ft above sea level into the heart of mountains enjoying spectacular views. While we both sat down admiring the 360° view, youngsters trekked further 250 ft to climb the summit. The breath-taking view leaves a lasting impression, of the Alps and can be admired from numerous photographs captured. During the return, being short of time, we did not get off at the Alpine Zoo.

Next, we visited Ambras Castle – famous for its collection of armour from the 15th century taking on the hop on hop off bus using the Innsbruck card, a great place to spend a few hours surrounded by lovely parks. On return, we were helped by the driver to catch the last bus leaving for the Swarovski Crystal World. We are thrilled to go round the Chambers of sparkling crystals, each one created by renowned artists. Thinking back, I am sure our family day out would have remained incomplete had we missed viewing some of the twinkling masterpieces created by contemporary artists and designers. After a long day out enjoying every moment, we returned back to the Hotel having a quick bite and a gelato in the old town.

Salzburg

After sumptuous breakfast, we were all set to take a private bus tour to Salzburg. We enjoyed our 2.50 hours road journey passing through the spectacular scenery of the Alps with amazing views all through. We are able to go around some of the city's top attractions including the Mirabell Gardens, the Salzburg Cathedral and the Baroque architecture of the buildings as we explored this vibrant Austrian city. We spent the afternoon in the city famous as Mozart's birthplace where the movie "Sound of Music" was filmed. We also enjoyed lunch in one of the cafes in the old town.

Innsbruck - Rome

It was time to say goodbye to Innsbruck. We were happy to have chosen our return journey by train. They glide you in comfort through the stunning mountain scenery. The journey was most scenic and comfortable through the gorgeous countryside. At Bologna, we had to catch a connecting train to Rome. Being a first timer traveling by train, we confronted little inconvenience. The departure of Trenitalia fast train was from platform three levels below. With just 10 minutes at our disposal, looking at the departure boards, we had to rush with all the baggage. It was a great challenge to our aching knees to hop on from one escalator to another. Traveling in a group, kids were sporting in handling extra bags belonging to the elders. Looking like a relay race we were just- in- time to reach the platform as the train was pulling in. Soon after placing our luggage on the overhead racks, we were served cold drinks. We also had some snacks from the refreshment coach. The fast train was touching 320 km/h speed in some stretches. Traveling by train was a lovely experience both quickest and convenient.

Rome

We stayed for an overnight in Hotel San Silvestro in the heart of the city. Being close to the major attractions, youngsters made a fast trip to the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain early in the morning. All good things must come to an end, an old saying. So we bid - goodbye to Rome and thanked the family for their kind support and everyone's participation. We all, really had a memorable holiday at multiple locations. In the afternoon it was time to catch our respective flights back home.

There are vacations, and there are journeys that remain most memorable.

For me, this journey has inspired me to pen down glimpse of those lovely moments that would ever remain so fresh in our minds. I am of the view that life, simply consists of happier moments of now and still to be. Moments spent together as a family has a mixed bag. Some moments are nice, some are nicer and some are even worth writing. I am sure the younger ones must have enjoyed the fun in spending time together visiting some of the most famous and inspiring heritage sites full of wonders of the architecture. With their likable, happy personality, I am pretty sure, make them plan more of such family reunions wherever they may be. Never let a bad situation bring out the worst in you. Choose to stay positive and be strong. Yes, there are a few simple things in life that make us smile. So keep smiling!! Change your life! Change the world!! Be happy!!!

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