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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