Being a student of History and an avid reader, I used to visualize what I had read and dreamt that someday I would be able to see, live some of those places and monuments associated with the historical past. This dream of mine became a reality when my son invited me to join him and his family on a three-country trip to London, Barcelona and Paris. I gave a huge whoop of joy and was raring to go.
It is strange that most Indian flights, flying overseas takeoff hours after midnight and mine was at 4.20am.I was flying Aeroflot and I was excited as I had a stopover at Moscow. I always thought Moscow was a cold, dull city, but I was quite happily surprised to see the pleasant sunny weather and people dressed normally rather than in fur lined jackets that I imagined. Though I was not allowed to go out into the city, I did get a feel of the place through all the souvenir stores and the numerous cafes in the airport. I had never heard of the name of the Moscow Airport and learnt it was; Sheremetyevo International Airport- a real mouthful to pronounce indeed.
I had time to kill and I went around window shopping. The lady in one store agreed to take the dollars I offered in exchange for a souvenir of Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, the building now a museum and an awesome piece of architecture. The building is shaped as a flame of a bonfire rising into the sky, a design that has no analogues in Russian architecture. It is like no other Russian building. Nothing similar can be found in the entire millennium of Byzantine tradition from the fifth to fifteenth century … a strangeness that astonishes by its unexpectedness, complexity and dazzling interleaving of the manifold details of its design. (Info courtesy Wikipedia)
My flight to London was announced and I moved to my gate. I was awake the whole night and I was ready to doze off as soon as my flight took off. Planes have always fascinated me and I like to take the window seat and stare out at the cottony clouds and the changing topography moving fast below me. I just couldn’t sleep and instead looked out and captured the different countries we were passing through. I could make out the outline of Norway and Sweden and could sight ice covered areas. Ships and Yachts sailed past in the sparkling blue waters. And then I dozed off till we reached Heathrow.
Guess what? I didn’t feel I was in London! Most of the employees at the airport were Indian, a few Pakistani too. I sailed through immigration and when I got out into T4, I realized what a huge airport it was. My son’s flight was after four hours and their flight was to land at T2. Then came a huge challenge for me; I had two big suitcases to haul to T2. I approached a genial-looking man and asked him the way to T2. He wished me and told me that I had to walk down to the Metro at the basement, take the Heathrow express, get off at T2 and then go up and take a two km walk to T2! I felt my legs buckling under me! Why didn’t anyone tell me that I had to walk so much? My poor spine creaked and groaned while I lugged my heavy baggage onto the tube(my first ride alone). But thankfully, a gentleman helped me and I finally got on. Then a long walk to the arrivals lounges of T2 and a longer wait for the flight. I couldn’t explore the terminal as I had to safeguard my baggage. I always thought India was a land of thieves and pickpockets, but this trip proved that India is much safer that way.T2 is the Queens terminal and I overheard one tourist jokingly comment-“Why can’t I see the queen?”.Our T2 in New Delhi is much better. The T2 in Heathrow had a mammoth and hideous looking abstract steel structure at the entrance. My patience was running out and when I saw the faces of my family walking in, I was bright once again and we proceeded to hire a cab. That was when it struck me how expensive London was going to be-100 pounds for a taxi! This was just a preview.
The drive to Central London was smooth and had me staring at the houses rushing by. Most of them had bunches of colorful flowers bursting out of the balconies. We reached Vicarage Court, Kensington and were greeted by our pretty landlady; Hana Fy. She gave us a personal welcome and saw to it that we were completely comfortable before she took our leave. A tiny, cozy and completely self-contained apartment it was and we all soon crashed after the tiring day’s journey. It was late evening when Karina and I stirred and to our surprise, Pratik, my son had gone shopping and got us food to eat. We had a light dinner and went back to bed as we wanted to have an early start.
Pratik wanted to start the trip by paying obeisance at the Emirates, Arsenal stadium (he is a die-hard arsenal fan) and that is where he marched us to. In India, it is so convenient to hop into the car standing in the patio and drive around to wherever you want to go but in London, we first trekked to the Underground tube station, worked out how to buy tickets for two days and after reading the maps we set out to our destination. The cannons were right outside and the stadium could be sighted from afar. We took the whole tour and walked into the players’ dressing room and walked out of the haloed passage into the stadium. They gave us handsets and earphones which gave us a running commentary about every room and this was much better than having a guide giving you the tour. Pratik bought a dress, a bag for Arian and a mug for himself from the souvenir store at the end of the tour. It was an exhausting walk of more than two hours. Arian just wanted to be left on the floor and rummage through all the merchandise. Pratik had a smug and satisfied look on his face when we walked out.
We were all voraciously hungry and headed to the nearest cafe and had a hearty English breakfast; bread-butter, baked beans, mashed potatoes, stir-fried mushrooms, baked tomatoes washed down with a tall mug of English tea. The cafe was bang opposite the stadium and very quaint. The best part of the meal was watching Arian pick up one bean at a time and pop it in his mouth! Reminded me so much of Pratik and Esha (my daughter) doing the same at that age.
We took the tube back and headed to our second destination; The London Eye. As we walked towards it across the Millennium Bridge on the Thames, I sighted the Big Ben and I was so excited. I had seen musicians playing on the roadside, in magazines and movies and there, right in front of me, were two musicians, one playing the drums and another, the guitar. Another girl was singing popular songs near the London eye. What a novel way of making money….entertain people and they reward you in return.
We walked down and right there was a grand carousel and other play areas for kids. A little further there was a crowd around four statues and it had me wondering as to what was so special about them. I went up close and saw that most of the tourists were taking pictures with them. I followed suit and was asked to put my hand through the arm of the statue. I was taken aback when the “statue” moved its arm and changed its posture; they were four men who were dressed and painted as statues, standing on stools and getting tipped nicely by the crowd. One of them did not move a single muscle in all the 15 minutes that I spent there.
The London Eye, a giant observation wheel located in the Jubilee Gardens on the South Bank of the Thames is a 443ft tall structure was built as part of London’s millennium celebrations. I mistook it for a Ferris wheel and refused to go up in it. Later I realized it is just an observation wheel that turns slow enough for people to embark while it is moving. A complete turn takes about thirty minutes. Thanks to the construction of the glass capsules on the outer side of the rim, London Eye Capsule, the passengers have a great 360-degree view over London. My bad! Pratik, Karina and Arian went up and they could sight famous landmarks are including Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Houses of Parliament. It is said, on a clear day you can see as far as forty kilometers. The shutterbug that I am, I was busy clicking pictures of the Thames, the Big Ben and even pigeons around. Once they were done with the London eye we proceeded to the Thames river cruise.
After a 30 minute wait, our boat was there and we set out from the London Eye pier. The seats on the deck were comfortable and we had a non-stop live commentary of all the landmarks we were seeing. We were floating alongside some of the oldest and most impressive buildings London has to offer; Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, The London Eye, The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe, Canary Wharf, HMS Belfast battle-cruiser, Millennium Footbridge and many more.
The cruise was worth it as one could see the old and the new architectural wonders. The City itself contains a wide variety of styles from the 17th-century churches and the financial institutions of the 18th and 19th centuries such as the Royal Exchange and the Bank of England to the early 20th century Old Bailey. Notable recent buildings are the 1980s skyscraper Tower 42, the Lloyd’s and the 2004 Swiss Re building, known as the “Gherkin”. The legendary Tower Bridge and the other bridges had me humming my childhood rhyme; London Bridge is falling down! Like the Krishna in Vijayawada has so many bridges over it, so does the Thames! Did you know that the Big Ben is the nickname for the Great Bell of the clock at the north end of the Palace of Westminster in London and often extended to refer to the clock and the clock tower? The tower is officially known as the Elizabeth Tower, renamed as such to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II (prior to being renamed in 2012 it was known simply as “Clock Tower”) The guide kept pointing out all the landmarks and added some light-hearted punches of his own. The blend of the old and new buildings is not very smooth, but it isn’t even an eyesore too.
The new glass and aluminum buildings were huge and built in different shapes. They have some funny nicknames;
1. The Shard-This recent addition to the London skyline is also the tallest building in Europe, offering an unbeatable view of the city. It’s shiny windows, sharp profile and “unfinished” top make it look like a fragment of glass;
2. The Walkie Talkie- This infamous building made the news because its distinctive concave shape was reflecting solar rays that could melt cars, scorch bike seats and fry eggs. So it’s either the walkie-talkie or London death-ray.
3. The Armadillo is, in fact, the City Hall, headquarters of the Greater London Authority. It’s nine layers and rounded shape obviously reminded someone of this charming little mammal, although it has been given many, less flattering nicknames.
4. Towering over Elephant and Castle is the Strata SE1, aka the Razor. This building is not just a pretty face: it has been awarded for being sustainable and environmentally friendly – as much as a concrete tower can be. Definitely a good name-match.
5. Thanks to its wedge shape, 122 Leaden hall Street won the nickname of the cheese grater. It is accurate, but still it is too much of a trivial name for such an elegant building, that has been described as “gracefully simple” and “one of the world’s best skyscrapers”.
6. As if the London skyline were lacking kitchen-themed building names, it seems like a Can of Ham will eventually sit close to the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater.
The London weather showed its tantrums for a while, but it was quite a pleasant day overall. After the refreshing cruise, we were hungry and tired. Came back home, ravished the fridge and kitchen and just crashed! What a first day it was!
The next day we lazed around a bit and set out to the Buckingham Palace. We took pictures with the iconic, red and black, telephone Booth and the Mail Box. The path to the palace was a pretty sight with bright blooms bursting out of every balcony. Coming from a tropical land where flowers just wilt under the sun, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the brilliant colours. The palace is just as I had expected it to be grand and palatial. We missed out on the change of guard ceremony and just moved around the place and trudged back. As the Union Jack was at half mast, the Queen obviously wasn’t in residence.
We walked to Notting Hill and entered a quaint bookstore which was literally a treasure trove of books. We had to tear ourselves away from the store to head towards Windsor palace. Few rooms of the Windsor Palace were open to the public. The souvenir shop was a veritable treasure trove and every item was inexplicably expensive. The crowns, tiaras, plumes, accessories, the lacy knick-knacks were all worth drooling over. The green arbor leading to the grounds was cool and shady and my grandson loved running around in it. There was this handsome young gentleman dressed in a period costume and walking around the garden. I went and took a picture with him as he so reminded me of all the stories I had read as a child of a Prince Charming or a Knight. We walked down to the lake and it was such an awesome sight. There were so many ducks and swans which were gliding royally on the waters and when we fed them they literally ate out of our hands.
We walked back home, tired and exhausted, rested and refreshed we set out in the night for the stunning, London by night bus tour. We started off at Piccadilly and saw illuminated sights of the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Big Ben & The Houses of Parliament, The famous London Eye, Harrods should be seen only at night when they have all their lights blazing. The lights on the Golden Eye too change colours.It was a perfect way to end a fabulous stay in London.
Travel tips to follow in the next….