NOTE: This is an extra-long post/ travelogue, but with lots of pictures. There’ll be a part 2 later.
Everybody has a favourite kind of vacation. Maybe some of us don’t discriminate too much and will go anywhere, however, whenever. I’m unfortunately not one of those; for instance, I avoid hill stations like the plague. The thought of car sickness and eerie silence makes me feel neither introspective nor relaxed. If anything, I’m jumpy and irritable. Oh, and make it one of those secluded virgin locations nestled in the hills where you’re the only people in the hotel/ resort/ cottages/ nearest 10 miles, and even if it’s not haunted (I doubt), you would have me to deal with. My other pet peeve is the “roughing it out” way, with insisting on being adventurous and having to put up with the shadiest of public toilets and bad drinking water – excuse me if I’m being a snob but I don’t see the adventure in diarrhea. There are always cheaper but fun ways to do something. But that’s for another day and I digress. What I was getting at was that by a natural default of liking crowded places with lots of people-watching opportunities, my favourite vacations are vacations to cities. And beaches. But cities with beaches are mostly awesome 🙂
Anyhoo, this post is about my recent vacation to a place I dreamed of going to, for pretty long. You know how sometimes we see a place in movies over a long time and sigh and say “some day”. That. London, baby! So, when the husband had a work trip planned for binness purposes and proposed to extend it into a vacation, I was over the moon. And it turned out every bit as awesome as I thought it’d be. In a nutshell, lots of history, breathtaking architecture, good food, superb public transport and great people.. what’s not to love? The icing on the cake obviously turned out to be the Royal Wedding happening at the same time, which we had absolutely no clue of at the time of booking the trip.
After 3 mandatory manic days that I must have before any vacation, we flew out of Bombay on 24th April and thank heavens, it wasn’t an early morning flight or I would have had no time to pack in all my summer clothes that I never wore 😀 Also, I prefer afternoon flights to morning flights anyday because if the plane is going to crash, at least people will be up and about to catch us when we go flying down. Sorry about that little graphic detail, but that’s exactly how it is in my head. Yessir, I’m a nervous flier besides being car-sick most of the time.. can I give God enough hints that I *need* to be teleported everywhere I want to go?
I finally watched The King’s Speech and The Fighter on the flight, and while I loved both a lot, I liked The Fighter a wee bit more. And I don’t even like Christian Bale all that much but he was brilliant. We landed in Heathrow at about 5 pm local time. I was pooh-poohing the concept of jetlag nonchalantly before it knocked me out like a light in about the next 3 hours. The first couple of days were reserved for work, and we were going to be in and around the Heathrow area. On Monday (the 25th) which was otherwise an Easter holiday, I had little to do other than visiting the office and reading my book. But thanks to the husband’s colleagues and their generosity, I had a shopping companion (another colleague who didn’t need to be in office luckily) and we were dropped off at Feltham High Street. I behaved like a good girl and had just a mini shopping stint (mostly a bag, only just because it was calling out my name). By the time I got back home, it was clear to me that the summer clothes should stay firmly ensconced at the bottom of the suitcases and the one pair of sandals I took along will not see the light of London day. It was C.O.L.D. and W.I.N.D.Y., and nothing like “balmy spring” as the websites will tell you. And I say this despite that I have a good tolerance for cold weather!
The next day we were visiting Leicester (again, for work) and I was super excited about seeing the English countryside. It didn’t disappoint. Beautiful mustard fields and green grass keep rolling by, just like the Punjab-Delhi highway. Only better, because you’re not braving drunk truck drivers. The cold was seeping into our bones, and caffeine came to the rescue at regular stops. At this point, I was beginning to do the desi thing of staring psychotically at the Brit girls, in their shorts and skirts. HOW IS IT POSSIBLE TO ROAM AROUND LIKE THAT IN SUCH WEATHER?
Leicester (pronounced: Lester) is a very nice but strange, strange place. Lots of Gujju thali places and mishthan bhandaars line the streets, with the Indian waiters speaking in an exotic mix of Gujarati and English in a Brit accent. If Ahmedabad chooses to go Victorian in its architecture, it would look like Leicester. The husband’s work meeting (unusually) stuck to schedule and we were back on the road by early evening.
Wednesday dawned bright and early (it can’t dawn any other way, when your body clock is running 4.5 hours behind “your” time). The husband still had some work to do at the office, and I chose to laze around a bit. Around afternoon, with all work wrapped up, the vacation would start in all earnest. We were given a drop off at the nearest tube station, and were ready to go. It helped that we had also got the Oyster train travel cards from the office which we just had to top up a few times. I’ll just say what everyone will tell you – the Tube is the cheapest, the most convenient and the most hassle free way of going around the city.
First stop: Westminster. Not that my over-excitement can be discounted in this, but the moment I stepped out of the Westminster station, it felt like I had stepped into a movie set. The Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament right opposite, the London Eye to our left and the Thames flowing right below our feet. I did what anybody would do to respect the beauty around them.. I squealed at the sight of the ice-cream stall next to me and got a rather large helping I could not finish 😀
We decided to see the Houses of Parliament first. Apparently, visitors can go right up to the public galleries and see and listen to the debates on. We went up to the House of Commons where some heated debate about education loan schemes was happening and then the House of Lords where local police structure reorganization was being discussed. Umm, couldn’t really get excited about the debates, but the inside of the building is awe-inspiring. The carvings and the statuettes around make it seem like a true coming together of the old and the new.
Next stop: Westminster Abbey. Or let me call it, Westminster Abbey attempt 1. We happened to be at the Abbey on a day it was closed on, so we stood outside the gates, clicked some pictures and the husband relayed a list of who all rested in peace inside and what a shame we couldn’t get to go in. I tell you, most times, we don’t need a guide :D.
We turned around to go to Trafalgar Square, walking by 10 Downing Street and the Horse Guards Parade Grounds and many World War II memorials.
And Trafalgar was truly where you can feel the chaos of a big city. Surrounded by eateries, museums, government buildings, it sort of encapsulates the old world feel. Just to make it a tad bit madder, the Royal Wedding preps – news channels putting up bunkers and giant screens – were on too. At Trafalgar, I also got to order my first fish-and-chips combo which I continued to OD on for the rest of the days, at this little pub called The Old Shades.
Oh, and totally unrelated but, hard as it is to get used to, the British accent so totally rocks. I tell you it can make anybody sound hot 😉
The next day, we landed at the only place madder than Trafalgar itself – Piccadilly Circus.
We had planned to do the Big Bus tour that day – basically a hop on-hop off tour (or as somebody I know calls it, the hip hop tour :D) on double deck buses by this company Big Bus with a ticket that’s valid for 24 hours. For anybody with not too many days on hand, I completely recommend this tour. Not only to do you get to see many places you may not have the time to actually visit, the anecdotes and the trivia keeps you hooked throughout. Another advantage of doing this on one of the first few days of the vacation is that you get a basic idea of distance and shortest routes (For some of you, who can remember unimportant things like directions. Like my husband. Because I didn’t even try any such thing. I still lose my way to Bandra from Goregaon.)
Not that we practise any restraint otherwise, but the tour made us go into a click-happy overdrive. Museums, sprawling parks, haunted houses, ancient pubs, palaces – it’s a joyride! All plans to “hip hop” or hop on and off the bus were forgotten, because though the cold air in the top deck was brain-numbing, we couldn’t possibly go away without having seen it all. It was twilight by the time we got off the bus, and my camera had a dead battery and a full memory to show for it 😀
We rushed to the London Eye which was to close soon, but were lucky enough to get there on time. And catch a beautiful sunset from up there. The city looked breathtakingly beautiful with the lights just coming on, and we spotted many of the landmarks marked on the guide.
With three more days to go, we had planned to move to Central London on Friday (29th), just to cut the commute time. That day being the Royal Wedding, we were advised to leave Hounslow real early and get to Central London before roads and tube stations would be blocked. We made good time and reached way before check-in time, dumped the luggage and headed out to “attend the wedding.” 😉 With all the optimism of two fools, we were planning to park ourselves somewhere near the Westminster Abbey or along the procession way to Buckingham Palace. All such hopes were dashed, when the train chugged into St. James’s Park station and the announcements said that Westminster station had been closed because of the crowd. We decided to walk it, but as soon as we stepped out of the station, it seemed millions others had decided to walk it too 😀 We were politely advised by the security personnel that getting to Westminster in time and in one piece would be “Eh? No chance, buddy, but you can try.” Our best bet seemed heading to some place with big screens, so we zeroed in on Hyde Park that was about, oh, 3 km away. Nevertheless, it was a fun walk and we got to see lots of people in wedding finery, Kate and William masks, Union Jack colors in hats and outfits and much drunkenness at 11 in the morning 🙂
We got there just in time to see the happy (royal, restrained happy) couple leave the church and wave at the cheering masses. But the party had just begun. There was an impromptu concert right there, with people dancing and singing along, children having a grand picnic and old ladies wiping silent tears as everyone waited for The Balcony Kiss and the flypast.
The kiss, very oh-just-let’s-get-it-over-with-now as it was from the Royal Highnesses, pushed the excitement in the air a notch higher. The moment, I’d say, was sealed by the swooping planes that flew right over our heads with a sea of flags dancing in the wind.
I know many feel that it was an over-stated, hyped event with a vulgar spend attached to it, but it had the power to bring many people on the streets on an extended weekend and enjoy something for what it was, together and with abandon. A simple joy that many choose to forego.
Anywhichway, as happens with me in life, one moment I’m enjoying myself and the next I go “What’s this nagging feeling? Oh, I know! I’m hungry!” I dragged away the husband who was singing along to the nth rendition of Aerosmith’s ‘ I don’t wanna miss a thing’ (how apt!), and we ate at the little café inside the park. And I think the food must have opened up our brains, so we decided we should get to work (what? Sight-seeing IS work!), and stop all this begaani-shaadi-mein-abdullahs business. We had passes for the Thames cruise that we’d bought along with the tour, and they were about to expire in a few hours. Some superhumanly effort (and discovering that the tube was working back again!) made us get there in time, and get on a cruise. The guide was really funny, an old chap who thought that “this cruise would be full up if what’s-her-face wasn’t getting married today”, with lots of trivia on the various bridges, Traitors’ Gate at the Tower of London, Cleopatra’s Needle and many other places.
I also couldn’t help but notice a mother of two who had braved the weather and the crowds to get her two little boys to come on the cruise, but the little one was being more than a handful while the older one (who had a complicated hearing aid device) felt embarrassed. For a while, I was thinking why she had even bothered, but then the two boys posed for a picture and it made sense. Sort of.
More in Part II.