Sunday, 10 August 2008

London


Zipping from Paris to London in approximately 2 hours! I have been hearing about Euro star from my childhood, and that experience was about to get underway! The EuroStar is a high speed train service connecting London with Paris and Brussels. It crosses under the English Channel by means of an undersea tunnel. After breakfast we checked out of our hotel and drove to Gare Du Nord Station, Paris, to board the Euro star!

I had traveled on trains numerous times in India, but an international train travel experience was a different experience altogether. I was amazed looking at the station. It was so clean and organized, I never saw a station so beautiful in my life. We went to the respective part of the station and had to wait in a queue for checking-in. Train and checking-in, not heard of in India! After all the formalities we went to a lounge which led to the platform. Our tour manager had instructed us in advance about where to wait for our respective compartments. So we followed all that was told and boarded the train accordingly, stowed our luggage in the luggage rack and settled down for the journey ahead.

The trip thus far had been quite hectic, so I decided to take a nap during the train ride. I didn’t really plan to sleep through the entire journey, but I ended up doing just that. Waking up early on cold mornings was just not my thing! When people ask me about how I felt while traveling on Euro Star I always tell them I slept through the entire journey! It feels a little odd though!

Anyway, we reached Saint Pancras in London in approximately 2 hours. We got off the train and started moving with the rest of the group, as during the journey we were scattered all over the train to ensure we get enough place to keep our luggage. For the first time during this trip I found  signs written in English first and then some other language, didn’t care to figure out what the other languages were though! We went though a series of formalities as we entered The UK, it required a separate immigrations procedure.

Our coach was waiting for us outside the station. We got onboard and met our new coachman Abbas. He was from Morocco living in London. After about 10 days we were back to the right side driving, what a relief!

We went to have lunch at an Indian restaurant, don’t remember the name. It was a spacious, well decorated restaurant. The walls had photographs of the lady owner and many Indian celebrities. Guess it was one of the better known restaurants in London. This was the first time Joy and I had vegetarian Indian food abroad, and this was also the first time on this trip we hated what we ate, not because it was vegetarian but for lack of variety and taste.

After a not-so-great lunch we visited Madame Tussauds wax museum, a great place for people to get photographed with famous ‘celebrities’! There were many rooms in the museum, each containing statues of celebrities from different fields. The statues are shuffled around from time to time and are often replaced with more up to date personalities. Some of the statues were so real that it was hard to believe that there was no life in them; one among them was the one of Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon's. I’m not lying, I felt it was moving!




The first room that we entered comprised of statues of movie stars. In fact, there were movie stars than any celebrities of other fields in the entire museum. As we were moving from one room to another we found a dark dingy section, and what a surprise! This part was dedicated to the Pirates of the Carribean with a life like wax figure of Johnny Depp! There were figures of Spiderman, Terminator, James Bond, Charlie Chaplin also.

The room with sports personalities had statues of Mr. and Mrs. Beckham, Owen, Rooney, Tiger Woods, even a replica of the football world cup! There were some interactive games in this room like shooting a football onto a projected goal; Lance Amstrong and you leading the group at the Tour De France.

The next room had musicians, right from Beatles to Bob Marley to Mandy Moore. And then we went to rooms which had politicians, writers, poets.

We clicked many photographs posing with different statues, what fun! I was fooled by the statue of a woman photographer. I also said sorry thinking I was disturbing her while she was trying to click pics! Of all the statues that were displayed my favourite was that of Johnny Depp’s!

The museum was very well organized, and the path was well laid out, so there was no way one could miss out on the fun. I figured otherwise later though, which I’ll mention later. We followed the way and reached a point where there was an option to go the Chamber of Horrors or go ahead which would lead to some other activity. I quickly opted for the latter without even asking Joy, though I told him that he must go and see the Chamber of Horrors thinking he would enjoy there, but he didn’t go. I, at least, ensured that I won’t be blamed later for taking a decision for both of us, without even consulting. For a thing that has a horror element I need no consultation, I love to stay as far as I can!

The way led us to a very exciting point, Spirit of London. We hopped into a black cab and went on a ride, which as the name suggests, brought about the spirit of London through a depiction of Britain's history.

A piece of advice at this point. One should not try to go back to the museum as it’s very difficult to find the way out. I struggled quite a bit as I had to go to the wash room, opened many doors and then requested someone to show me the way out. I got a little worried when I came out to find myself on a completely different street. But when I walked further up I saw my husband and the tour manager standing at the corner of the road and smoking. I was the last one to reach the coach.

From there we went to the London Eye. It is also known as the Millennium Wheel and is the biggest Ferries wheel in Europe. Situated on the south banks of River Thames, it is an observation ride which rotates extremely slowly. The wheel carries 32 sealed and air-conditioned egg-shaped passenger capsules attached to its external circumference, each capsule representing one of the London Burroughs. Each capsule can hold 25 people who are free to walk around, though seating is provided.





As always, we didn’t have to wait at queues to buy tickets as they were already bought. We had to wait a bit here for our turn to come though as the place was quite crowded. Our turn came and we had to jump into the capsule; they don’t stop but keep moving slowly. The wheel only stops for elderly or disabled people. I don’t have a major problem with height but I am generally scared of heights. But the wheel moves so smoothly that I did not feel uncomfortable at all, instead I had a great time moving all around, video shooting! I wanted to see the whole of London from the capsule; actually, one can actually see most of London though at a distance.

After a splendid day at Madame Tussauds and the London Eye we headed for our hotel, Ramada Ealing, in the suburbs of London. It was early evening and there was bright daylight when we checked into the hotel. I was feeling very hungry and dinner was scheduled after 2 hours. There were some cookies in our room but that was not enough. For the first time in the entire trip we had some time off to go out on our own, so Joy readily agreed to go for a walk. Oh how wonderful it was to walk down the roads with parks and gardens on the sides. It was a little cold outside. I was craving for a Subway sandwich. We started walking and saw a Burger King outlet. In a short distance from there we saw a KFC outlet. At this point I was quite sure to find a Subway outlet. And yes, I was right; there was a Subway outlet right at the adjacent road to KFC. I was thrilled! I had a BMT – Bigger Meatier Tastier; I still have the taste in the mouth! We walked for a little while longer and came back to the hotel.

The next day we had the London City tour. We were joined for this by a local guide, a woman named Sally with a very heavy British accent. So I, guess the others too, had to pay a little extra attention to what she said. She was relating to us the story of London's past, its current standing, the various buildings and so on as the bus kept moving.

We first stopped at the Albert Memorial. This was a statue commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of her husband. From Sally we heard little stories about Queen Victoria and Albert; how Albert was loved by people of England and so on.





Right opposite was the famous Royal Albert Hall, I couldn't believe my eyes. This auditorium has hosted concerts of the finest artists of the world. I saw a poster of a Mark Knopfler concert to be held soon, wish I could live in London!


From here we drove around to the different parts of the city, the guide explaining things to us on the way. We passed Hyde Park which is one of the largest parks in England and one of the Royal Parks of London, famous for its Speakers' Corner. Speakers' Corner is an area where public speaking is allowed and speakers are allowed to speak as long as the police consider their speeches are not breaching the law. We crossed Marble Arch, London Bridge, stopped briefly at Trafalgar square. We then went past Prince Charles' house and proceeded to Buckhingam Palace for the acclaimed changing of the guards. When we reached there we got to know that changing of the guards would not happen on that day. We drove on past Westminster Abbey , which is the traditional place of coronation and burial site for English monarchs, past the well-known Big Ben and went for lunch.

We next visited the Tower of London, best known for its illustrious residents, The Crown Jewels. The Tower's primary function was a fortress, a royal palace, and a prison. It has also served as a place of execution and torture, an armoury, a treasury etc. This was founded in 1078 by William the Conqueror and is now a World Heritage site.

There are many buildings that encompass the site, each serving a different purpose. Right opposite the tower is the majestic Tower Bridge, which has the ability to rise up any time a ship needs to pass under it. We got the chance to see a ship pass the bridge! There were entire rooms devoted to showcasing the ancient armour and the guns, horse armour as well; we didn't go there.


We went around the Jewel tower, where they had 2 screens of introduction to the Crown Jewels before going in to see them. The room where the Crown Jewels themselves were displayed had a moving travellator on which one stands to see the jewels while moving past the glass cases that contain them. Apart from the Crown Jewels, which were exquisite and obviously priceless, there were various other artifacts and royal memorabilia. The crown jewels stay here under armed guard throughout the year unless they are taken out during the coronation ceremony and at various other state functions.

The Tower of London has many mysteries as there are countless stories about it during its time as a torture and execution chamber; honestly, Joy and I were not interested in them, so we decided to find a place to go and sit and wait for the other members to come so that we could go to another place.

After visiting The Tower of London we were given some time off to stroll around the shopping area on Oxford Street. To wind up the trip we were taken to the Swami Narayana Temple on the outskirts of London. This was Europe's first traditional Hindu temple and was funded and built totally by Hindus and took 5 years to build. After spending some time here we went back to the hotel.

At the dinner the group was gathered. As this was the last evening of the trip, we spent some time saying goodbye to all the members of the group, taking photographs, sharing contact details etc before heading to bed. Some of the members were going back to India, some were heading to other countries in Europe to meet family and friends, and 2 families were joining us to go to Dubai.

The next morning we got up a little late than usual as our flight was later in the day. The 2 families and us had breakfast and left the hotel. Two cabs were waiting for us to get us to Gatwick Airport. It took us about an hour to get there. We were headed to Dubai!

This was indeed an unforgettable vacation of my life. We experienced glorious history, great architecture and art to breathtaking natural beauty coupled with some great modern innovations and attractions. We could not do full justice to the various attractions available by touring 6 countries in 10 days, but we did get an essence of each country. I now know which are the places that I would revisit.
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