Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter finale is the grandest ever

Ten years, seven books, eight movies and a mindbogglingly finale close to the Harry Potter franchise. And what better way to close the chapter in 3-D. To ensure we get confirmed seats, we booked the 9.30 am show at Imax, Wadala. I don't remember going to a cinema hall that early in the day, ever. The action starts soon enough; first a recap of the last scene of the first part, Voldemort's access to the Elder Wand, followed by a grim look at Hogwarts patrolled by the Dementors who seem to be standing right next to your seat if seen through those 3-D goggles. It's surreal; you know in less than three hours it's all going to come to an end, no more anticipating the release of J.K.Rowling's books, no more reading the morning papers with pictures of children with the happiest faces as if they've won the treasure hunt after braving 5-mile long serpentine (thankfully not the Nagini types) queues in cold weather of foreign shores, with their latest Harry Potter books- sometimes personally signed by the author Ms Rowling- no more scouting on You Tube for a trailer of an upcoming Harry Potter movie and as far as I am concerned, no more anticipating to borrow the book from my nieces and waiting desperately to run off to Panchgani on a holiday armed with the particular Harry Potter book of the movie that is just about to release.

That's what I used to do; I never read the books well in advance, as soon as they hit the stands, fresh from the press for the first time ever, definitely not finishing the books in those crazy two to three hours that kids these days do with Harry Potter books. Even soirees last longer than that. My strategy was to pick up a book whose movie was about to release. Read that book a good two or three months before its movie version was to release, have the book fresh in my mind and then go to watch the movie without the knowledge of what has happened in subsequent versions. That way, I thought I could enjoy and appreciate the movies better.

The first part of the Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was much tamer than the grand finale, but the setting was perfect. Part-II moves fast, cuts out all the unnecessary riff-raff, the director cleverly assumes you're on the plot and read the book, and sticks to the bare essentials. The ending is changed a bit, but the ride is as thrilling as you'd ever imagine. Several moments stands out, especially the sensational break-in and the daring escape from the Gringotts Bank, the fortification of Hogwarts Castle by Professor McGonagall and team and Snape's touching encounter with Harry Potter. I also felt the 3-D experience to be more pronounced here than in Avataar but that's maybe because I am a Harry Potter fan and I never really much cared for Avataar. The Dementors- if seen through the 3-D goggles- will seem to be standing right next to you. Lord Voldemort lights up the screen every time he appears ; brilliant Ralf Fiennes will ensure his performance will go down as one of the most feared villains of cinematic history. Rowling's insistence on having only British actors work in Harry Potter franchise has paid off. To me- and countless Harry Potter fans- this will be one of the most memorable chapters of our lives, to have lived through the Harry Potter days, books, movies, spells and Hogwarts. 


Sunday, July 10, 2011

Visiting Lake District

Apart from the must-sees and must-dos in England, Lake District is right up there. This is a mountainous region in North West England. We decided to spend two nights here in a small town called Windermere. We caught the early morning Virgin train from London Euston station at about 9.30 (prior reservations were done online) and after a three and half journey that includes one to two change-overs (depending on your train timings), we reached Windermere. Virgin trains are fast but that apart,  British railway is a lot like Indian Railways. Unreserved passengers occupy reserved seats, though they are polite and vacate them when the rightful occupants arrive. Yet the trains have many standees and people squat at the entry / exit points. The good part though was that some compartments have a cafe; you pick up food items from the shelves, tea/coffee/ available, pay for them at the counter and have them at your seat. Whilst going we were fortunate to have such cafe in our compartment. But whilst coming, I had to jump about four compartments in search for the nearest cafe, only to find a large group of youngsters squatted on the floor of the fifth, and I got dissuaded to go any further and returned hungry to my seat. Anyways, that is another story.

We arrived at Lake District at about 2 pm. Most of the Bed & Breakfast (B&B) / Inns / hotels in the Lake District have their check-in times at 2 pm, so we were shown our room at The Ravensworth. Lovely little Inn and very centrally located. Though we had asked for a room on the ground floor, the upper floor rooms have a better view. The hotel was very clean, its owners (Nick and Cheryl) were very helpful and courteous and will go out of their way to help and guide their patrons.

Lake District is dotted by beautiful scenery dotted with many lakes and small towns or villages and country side. We stayed at Windermere because that is the hub of Lake District and is also connected by the rest of England by  rail. The best part ofLake District (as with the rest of England) is that there are plenty of B&Bs / Inns everywhere. All you really need in the Lake District is a clean place to stay; there are ample of cafes and restaurants to suit your taste palette. Infact it seemed to me that Lake District has more B&Bs, hotels and restaurants than its own residents. But then, tourism is the main occupation of Lake District followed perhaps by professionals like doctors, lawyers, etc.

After checking in, we took a walk to Windermere town and had lunch at a cafe called The Lighthouse Cafe. Then, we too a boat ride on Bowness lake. Bowness is the lakeside town next to Windermere and is easily accessible by bus. That's another good thing in lake District. You can take a day's ticket of about 7 Pounds and take as many bus rides as you wish in a single day, that will take you around Windermere, Bowness and Grassmere, another beautiful town and Ambleside. If you go to lake district, you've got to take a boat ride. You can even walk to Bowness from Windermere.

The next day we took a day's tour by a tour company called Mountain Goat, supposed to be the best tour company in Lake District. They were good, but unfortunately the weather wasn't. What were supposed to be breathtaking views was marred by heavy fog that took us over the entire day. There was a half hour train ride part of the tour that we took which was quite enjoyable. The next day, we took the daily bus ticket and went to Grassmere by its public bus and spent the day there walking around the village. In the evening, we took the train back home and came to London.


Picture #1: Bowness lake on Windermere
Picture#2: Bowness town
Picture#3: The Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway

Friday, July 8, 2011

London - First impressions

For some weird reason I can't quite comprehend, I believe that your introduction to Europe should happen through England, specifically London. In other words, if you want to tour Europe, then start with London. Then, other cities or countries may follow. Maybe because London and England has so much history and culture and the place is so old.

Heathrow Airport sucks! Terminal 4's (Jet Airways) arrival lounge is unimpressive and belies the fact that England is a developed country. Hopefully, they'll renovate soon. And since my last visit to Singapore my expectations from international airports (what a vast difference) had reached the moon, they were just as quickly brought back to the ground. Few counters at the immigration to cater to one of the world's busiest airports meant that after a 10-hour journey, we had to spend more about 20 (or perhaps a bit more) minutes in the queue, waiting. The baggage claim area looks like a seedy large, never-ending godown. I was just glad to get my baggage and be out of there.

But the good part of the airport is that you get a direct underground train to go to various parts of the city, pay phones are free to use if you wish to call a cab, there are radio taxis available nearby who can come to pick you up if you need them and the Help desk is very helpful and polite.

Everything is very old in London. The city, its roads, its Underground railway, buildings, houses, everything is aged. But there's a lot of nostalgia about it, you don't complain. Unlike America where everything is and looks new, England and London looks old. I like old.

London will remind you of Mumbai in some ways; the good Mumbai, that is. Lots and lots of old heritage buildings; London city looks like an extended Ballard Estate; old buildings, beautifully carved roofs, windows on the topmost floors coming out of the roofs, gargoyles on many of them, and so on). Most of the streets are narrow, just like Mumbai, but amazingly the traffic keeps moving. Even parts of Manhattan, New York (NY)have only two lanes, but they have cleverly converted many of those roads as one-way because of the criss-cross nature of its streets, so the traffic in NY moves much faster. Nothing like that in London.but still the traffic moves. There are several traffic jams at peak hours, they're famous, Londoners are used to them but still hate them just like Mumbaikars, but traffic moves. That's the good part.

Some other India-UK similarities are strikes (the Underground was on a strike the day Wimbledon Tennis Championships began) and weekly maintenance of railway tracks. But that's also because London's Underground is the oldest in the world they say. Train delays happen and on the outstation train that we took to Lake District, unreserved passengers occupy reserved seats apart from crowding the gangways and squatting the entry/exit points and squatting on the floor.

Despite all this, public transport rocks! London has the Underground rail (Tube), Overground railway (fast and slow trains) and bus services that can take you every nook and corner of the city and much of its distant suburbs. The train map sounds confusing at first, so spend some time in understanding it. You might have to change trains sometimes, but that's okay.

Some Tube stations do not have escalators. So think carefully if you wish to take the Tube from the Heathrow with all your luggage or have old people in tow, like I had. Taxis are very expensive (40 Pounds from Heathrow to Wimbledon where I stayed), but once in a while, it's worth it.

Once settled, try and figure out what kind of a pass / ticket you need. The good part is that a single pass or ticket is valid across buses and trains. Lots of choices (daily / weekly / monthly pass, one-way or return ticket) are on offer and you can buy them using cash or card. It looks complicated at first but once you have figured out what you want, it's the best way to travel around London.

Food is available in plenty, though restaurants can be expensive and most of them close by 10 to 10.30 pm. So if you have a late evening show, say at the Broadway or a concert at the Royal Albert Hall, make arrangements beforehand. But if you have access to a microwave at your place, then lots of department stores like Morrisons, Tesco, Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer (it gets pricier in that order) have tons of ready food packets (Indian / Chinese / Continental ) that you can pick up,  stock up till about two days, microwave heat and eat. Vegetarians can easily survive. No, I am not a vegetarian, please. I am just saying.


My fondness for the British accent has gone down a bit. The older generation speaks more clearly, but the younger generation's accent takes a little time to get adjusted to. It ain't as simple to comprehend as it was in those old age British comedies. The generation gap is very visible between how the young and the old talk, in England. 

But people are friendly. If you ask them directions, they will help you. They always offer seats to old people, especially in the Underground, whether you are white, black or brown. Awesome! 

Finally, London is not necessarily a once in a lifetime visit. Almost all London attractions demand atleast 3 hours. Some nearby places like Bath and Windsor Castle deserve an entire day each. Either have enough days on hand, or be prepared for multiple London trips. I think that's great news, don't you think?



Picture#1: The Big Ben and the British Parliament
Picture#2: London city eye view from atop St. Paul's Cathedral
Picture#3: Hampton Court Palace
Picture#4: River flowing next to Hampton Court Palace

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