Sunday, January 03, 2010

Europe Day 12 - Paris and London

Paris was a very fascinating city in most aspects. Today morning, we were supposed to board the Eurostar to London, so we arrived at the Nord station 3 hours before, after a nice French breakfast including the tastiest croissant. The station wasn’t very massive, but had enough facilities to keep the travelers busy. It was a unique sight seeing quite different engines in each platform, ranging from the Paris local train to the German TGV to the French Eurostar. Sensing the opportunity to click more photos, I went out looking for the right angles and the right light setting. I came back after a while, and we had to fill up immigration forms and go through the security checks. I have never been to a place where the emigration and immigration was next to each other, so it was different to see the French and UK border agencies together. Once I went through it, I realized that my camera lens cap had gone missing. This is not the first time its happening this way, and I had got enough warnings from my wife about my carelessness, so now I had to hear the “I told you so” stories. I was feeling quite sad, as the lens cap was an integral part of the well being of my dear D5K. It was quite a lousy cap though as it was tough to take it off and put it on every now and then. So taking care of the camera on the last day of the trip to take photos became the highest priority.

We had kind of created a trend of buying souvenirs in every country we have been to this trip. We got a nice Venetian glass in Italy, a painting of Salzburg and Swarovski crystal showpiece in Austria; a Swiss knife from Switzerland, a glass shoe from Germany, a model of houses from Netherlands, a model of the Atomium in Belgium. We used this last opportunity in France to buy a model of the Eiffel Tower with a marble base, and did some last minute hurried shopping. Actually, the leather handbags were cheap and nice in the train station.

Boarding a train is a nightmare if a big group of 40 people have to take in their luggage and organize it, while being compassionate to fellow passengers who are not part of the group. With boarding allowed only 15 minutes before train departure, it was a hell of a rush, with old people struggling to take their bags up and people placing their bags in a haphazard manner blocking the way for others. With 5 minutes remaining and more than half the bags and people waiting outside, a group of young enterprising guys including me decided to take over the situation. We quickly organized ourselves and divided the work without any explicit agreement, so that the bags can be loaded in. We just about finished the job when the train departed, right on schedule to the minute.

There was a train from Paris to London every hour. The train was impressive, with enough room for all the luggage, hand carries and shopping bags, nice seat with cushions for the neck rest, and a nice pantry. The only negative about it was the leg space, with the Caucasian opposite me poaching my space. Once the train started galloping, we were off to the pantry to see what it has in store. We got a couple of drinks and were chit chatting as the train noiselessly whizzed past the French countryside. The speed of the train was impressive, and much faster than any other train I have ever been in. I could hardly hear the “toddok toddok duduk duduk duduk” rattle of Indian trains, although it was traveling more than 200 kmph. On the outside, the countryside was beautiful and serene. The smoothness of the train is like a nice lullaby nursing you to sleep. The Euro tunnel is an impressive 50km long tunnel below the English Channel, although we couldn’t see much once is was underground. The English side of the track had a lot of small tunnels, and it was bad for the ears, with every tunnel clogging the ears. We finally arrived in London at 12.30 pm, right to the minute on schedule. It was impressive speed and accuracy. It just feels so nice to start on time and arrive on time, even if you are not pressed for time. 5 stars to Eurostar.

Once in London, the first thing I noticed was the massive number of Asians and Blacks there. England seems to be totally diversified across different ethnicity. There were a few Indians hounding us to buy some calling card and mobile connections every time we passed them, there was a restaurant run by Indians and there was Indians just everywhere.
We boarding the bus and went on a city tour. We learnt about the three parts of the city, the Westminster, the city of London and the new More London part being built up for the Olympics in 2012. London was more like a modern Paris, with old robust buildings but with more vibrant colors. It was interesting to know about the history of the “London bridge is falling down” nursery rhyme. It seems that they built houses on the bridge which made the bridge collapse. They rebuilt it and made the same mistake quite a few times. Then it fell down due to other causes like fire and rebuilt again. I was surprised why they never learnt from their mistakes. We passed over the other famous bridges in London, including the Tower bridge which opens up, the Millennium bridge opened on this day ten years back to commemorate the new millennium and so on.

We saw the nice skyline of the city of London, and visited places including the Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. The Westminster Abbey is the most famous Anglican church and many important persons are buried there, including Sir Issac Newton. This burial was praised by the French revolutionary Voltaire. The Big Ben was named after the nickname given to a short and stout Ben who created the bell on top of the tower. It was such a nice coincidence that when we were at the Big Ben, the clock struck 4 and boomeranged with its chime heralding the New Year in Singapore 10000 km away! We had a look at the prime minister’s office, the London eye and the houses of parliament on our way to the Buckingham palace. We saw it from the front, but after seeing the Versailles one the day before, it seemed quite ordinary. We learnt how Queen Victoria, who became a queen at the age of 18 opted to shift out of the then residence of Kensington palace to this palace. She was a famous queen and a golden statue outside was a tribute to her. The London eye is not as tall as the Singapore Flyer, but it was very colorful at night. We could also spot some rehearsals for the big New Year’s Eve party. Half of London was being closed down for the celebrations, and we were strongly advised not to come anywhere near the centre of town, which is what we all wanted to do. Bummer!

We went to Piccadilly to do some shopping and were given the directions to go to a Chinatown restaurant for dinner. We went around Picadilly taking in the sights and sounds of the festivities. We went into a few souvenir shops to do some shopping. We got a nice 3D glass image of the London skyline. Once we were done with the shopping, we started on our way to go to the restaurant. However, the direction was from the main road, but I thought it was from the place the bus stopped. Going straight from there, which was the other side of Chinatown, it was a very sleazy place with every shop selling adult content and services. It is definitely not the place to be with your wife next to you. We realized that we had lost our way and after crossing a few streets and finding more of the same, we traced back to the main road and asked people for directions to Chinatown. When we finally reached the restaurant, we found more of the same crap Chinese food we had grown to hate during this tour. Here in London, the Chinese restaurants strangely put mashed shrimps into the Sichuan chilli, so we were careful to confirm with them and avoid taking it.

We checked into a hotel in Wembley near the new stadium due to the lack of accommodation on this special day anywhere else. There were Indians in the reception and it took a hell lot of time to check in, much more than we had ever waited. Looking around I spotted very Indian trademarks, so I realized that the place is run by Indians. They had put up posters everywhere to let us know that they charge for everything, and even had a poster warning us of thieves in this area! We went through a maze of doors to our room. I have never gone through so many doors in a hotel before. The room was shoddy to say the least, and I was almost rolling on the floor laughing seeing a century old Thomson TV.

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