London Again

July 9, 2017

Day 9

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The husband is semi-torn between the Tower of London and watching a match at the Lord’s. There are no tickets to the match, so the Tower it is. We’ll be meeting A at the Tower, where he has so kindly, arranged tickets for us. We have been told that the Kohinoor diamond and the Crown Jewels are a somewhat of a letdown. That does not deter us. I am determined to see the famous diamond and the infamous ravens.

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It takes us longer than anticipated to reach the Tower and poor A is kept waiting. An entire day on my feet in London and five days in Scotland didn’t tire me out as much as the trip from Stansted Airport to the Tower Bridge!  Once in, we see a Beefeater starting his tour and join it. He is entertaining and intriguing. We follow him, till we see the queue snaking across the courtyard to see the Crown Jewels and promptly join it. While in queue, we spot a couple of ravens hopping around looking for scraps. Did you know that the collective noun for a group of ravens is “unkindness”? Ravens are also known to be able to mimic human speech! A Royal Decree says that there must be six ravens in the Tower always. It is said, the decree was passed after a King was told that if the ravens left the Tower, the White Tower would fall and a great disaster befall the Kingdom.

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The Kohinoor is a large, colourless diamond possibly 5000 years old, but more likely from around the 13th century. Rumour has it that it first weighed 793 carats (158.6 g) uncut. The earliest well-attested weight is 186 carats (37.2 g). It was big, no doubt, but not uncommonly beautiful, so  Prince Albert decided to get it cut and polished. Thirty-eight days and 8000 pounds later the stone emerged 42 percent lighter. Today it weighs 105.6 carats (21.12 g). This is probably why people who go to see this supersized diamond are disappointed.  Within the royal family, the diamond has acquired a reputation for bringing bad luck to any man who wears it. Since arriving in the country, it has only ever been worn by female members of the family.

As we make our way through the building, we see not just the Kohinoor, but a number of other gorgeous jewels and household items as well. If you ask me, the time we spent admiring this dazzling display of wealth was completely worth every moment.

We make it to Gatwick airport well in time for our flight, only to find the flight delayed. After waiting impatiently post security and boarding pass check, we spend another four hours inside the plane, waiting to take off. The captain cooling passes the blame on to Engineering, saying they were investigating a scratch in the paint, in the hold. *Eye Roll* Thank heavens for adult coloring! The captain did try to make up time, but we still get home at two in the morning, and my legs are swollen like tree trunks. The nice part was, two people switched seats with us. We had two middle seats. A nice lady gave the husband her window in exchange for his middle, so we could sit together. Sometime after takeoff, the sleepy girl in the aisle seat changed places with me, so I could get out and walk around as much as I needed to.

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It’s been a wonderful trip. London has been marvelous and Edinburgh most charming. Every single time I got on the tube/underground in London people stood up to offer me a seat, instantly and without hesitation – men, women and children. The food was delicious. The weather has been most cooperative. Thank you everyone who took time out to meet us and show us around, got in touch with us, tried to meet us, and helped us with research. Here’s to friendship and more holidays!

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot

and days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear, 

for auld lang syne,

we’ll take a cup of kindness yet,

for auld lang syne.”

Robert Burns

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Last Day in Scotland

July 8, 2017

Day 8

Today is our last day in Scotland. We want it to be relaxed, while we still make the most of it. We lazily roll out of bed. On the cards is a trip to Urquhart castle, a boat ride back across the Loch Ness and Inverness. From Inverness we will drive down to Glasgow to experience the nightlife and catch our flight out tomorrow.

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Once upon a time, Urquhart Castle was one of Scotland’s largest castles. Excavations have provided evidence of settlements in this area going back to as early as 2000BC. The castle is strategically located on a rocky promontory with an open view up and down Loch Ness. More than once during its troubled history the castle held out because it could be resupplied by ship. There is a miniature model of the castle in the little gallery, next to the gift shop. It’s got little bulbs that light up when you press a room/area on the legend. A super fun way to explore the castle as it once stood. There is a short video on the history of the castle which I highly recommend everyone sees before venturing out into the castle itself. It helps gain perspective. Control of the castle passed back and forth between the Scots and English during the Wars of Independence. The last of the government troops garrisoned here during the Jacobite Risings blew up the castle when they left. Today the castle stands in ruins, bits and pieces of solid wall and broken towers.  The husband correctly points out that Western Ghats of Maharashtra, India, have so much to offer in terms of both scenic beauty and history. If only we learnt the art of preservation and presentation.

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Our plan was to take the boat ride on the Loch Ness from the castle. We find this is not possible, as we need to buy tickets at another place a short distance away. Up and down the road we go, with our map insisting we go uphill to catch a ferry. Finally we identify the Visitor Centre, where we are told to buy tickets from across the road, right next to where the ferry boards. The next ferry is in ten minutes or so. The husband rushes off to park where instructed, while I make my way to the ticket booth. He manages to park and get to the jetty just as the ferry starts boarding. Loch is Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Scots for a lake or for a sea inlet. Loch Ness, immortalized by Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster is probably the most famous loch in the world. Loch Ness is a freshwater loch. It is the second largest Scottish loch by surface area, the first being Loch Lomond, but due to its great depth, it is the largest by volume in the British Isles. It is said to contain more freshwater than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. Nessie, the eponymous monster of the lake is described as an enormous green creature, with a long neck and snake like body with one or more slither humps protruding from the water. The ride around the lake is pleasant and offers a bonny view of the Urquhart castle.

IMG_0844We reach Inverness just in time for lunch. We walk around trying to decide what to eat, and shopping just a wee bit for you-know-who-is-coming-soon. I smell Chinese and it smells good. We haven’t eaten at a Chinese buffet for a couple of years now, and this seems like a good opportunity to find out what British Chinese tastes like.

IMG_0854It is raining, when we get to Glasgow. It takes us a while to locate our hotel and check-in. Having driven around the city while trying to get to our hotel, we decided to skip everything else in favor of a hot dinner and a good night’s rest. We pick an Indian restaurant, by virtue of it being open at this hour and because it’s called Usha. Both our mothers are coincidentally named Usha. Our next challenge was returning the car. The rental office is closed and won’t open until after our flight departs tomorrow. The hotel puts us in touch with the rental company’s on the road assistance team, who assure us, it would not be a problem at all. All we have to do is fill up gas and leave the keys in the drop box.

We tuck in for the night, filled with the loveliest of memories.

“Wherever I wander,

wherever I rove,

The hills of the Highlands

forever I love”

-Robert Burns

Skyfall

July 6, 2017

Day 6

File_006(2).jpegIt’s closing time at the Eilean Donan Castle, so we can’t go in. We walk around and admire it from the outside. There’s a bagpiper playing for a wedding there. Oh to get married in a castle! We’ve informed our B&B host we’ll be checking in late. When we get there, she has everything set out for us. There are no falls around the House on the Falls, but it is the sweetest little house in the middle of nowhere with sheep all around and wool stuck in the barbed wire. I never knew sheep shed. Most natural, now that I think.

Isle of Skye.jpgWe quickly freshen up and head out o Neist Point.  Out good host has suggested a few places we can stop at for dinner on the way. We are not hungry and decide to have dinner on the way back. I insist on driving to Neist Point. It’s a short drive, on interior roads so I can go as slow as I like. There is very limited cell phone signal in these areas, so we’ve mapped our way in advance and are following it. It takes us on narrow paths, past sheep and lambs – I gently toot the out of my way, through gates and fences. These narrow roads are single lane and have traffic going both ways. There are designated pull over spots every now and then, to allow passing. An hour later, we are nowhere close to Neist Point, and I find myself tooting the same sheep out of way again (don’t ask how we know, they really were the same sheep). We try following the road signs instead of the map, but it doesn’t help. Only when we get some signal, is the map able to re-calibrate and put us back on the right track. By now I’m done driving.

The husband gets us to Neist Point. The beauty of the place and the never ending daylight make it easy to lose track of time. Before we know it, we are late for dinner. We try a all the options suggested by our B&B host, only to find the kitchens closed. Luckily we still have some fruits, energy bars, cookies and other snacks on us. My poor baby, but it was totally worth it. Plus, breakfast was only a good sleep away.

“Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus”

July 6, 2017

Day 6

“Go back to sleep.” he mumbles. I oblige, knowing that this is going to cost us a few places on our itinerary. Afterall, I did promise myself this would be a paced out holiday and I would sacrifice a few items on my to-cover list if I needed to.  Finally the threat of missing breakfast got the husband out of bed and we hurriedly make our way to the dining area. The husband is amazed at the amount of bread and cheese on my plate – my second helping. He smiles incredulously and shakes his head. As we head out, he even grabs me some fruit for the way. I don’t really need it. Mornings are my hungry time.

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Today’s plan is to drive down to Oban. We’ll drive along the coast as suggested, instead of through Glen Etive as earlier planned. I wanted to try and make it to Oban by lunchtime, so we could take a ferry out to Staffa. That is clearly not happening. Plus, it’s cloudy and raining so we are not sure if the ferries will go.

Oban-Glasgow-etc.jpgWe take our time, stopping at serene Loch Lomond and along the way to make photographs and see cattle. We miss the turn to the standing stones, and never make it to Dunadd Fort, the Scottish seat of Kings, but the drive is its own reward – so beautiful, that it could break your heart. Lush green all around, and grey-blue skies. Occasional gentle drizzle marks the way.

 

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The Oban distillery is open, but the last tour is over. We walk around the tiny town for a bit and head over the Fish and Chips Shop for dinner. The port city of Oban is the fishing capital of Scotland. Gone are the days when shellfish were regarded as famine food and folk would gather mussels when there was no meat to eat. Today shellfish are a delicacy. The husband however, opts for fish and chips. He says it is like no other, the fish absolutely melts in your mouth (but the chef still needs to go to his local haunt back home in Bombay to learn how to make tasty fish fry). I go for the Madras curry, simply because it’s the last thing I expected to see on the menu.

As we get ready to kiss the day away, I find some of my flexibility has returned. All the walking and constant bending to pack and unpack must be helping. The next morning, we head back to Oban distillery. I’m not drinking, but there’s no reason I can’t do the tour. This historic whiskey distillery is one of the oldest and smallest in all of Scotland. Established in 1794, it pre-dates the town of Oban and has only two pot stills. Oban Single Malts are characterised as rich and fruity with a hint of peat smoke and sea salt. Where does the fruity/orange come from- they won’t tell. At the end of the tour and tastings, our guide very sweetly packs me dram, for when the baby comes. There’s no way the airlines will let me carry that – the husband is going have some extra sound sleep tonight. Surprisingly, that doesn’t get drunk until our last night in Scotland.

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Next on our route is the stunning landscape of Glen Coe. Dark grey clouds rolling across lofty hills, looming over the verdant valley – drama everywhere.

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We make a detour from here to Glenfinnan to see the now famous “Harry Potter Viaduct”. As we walk out of the parking towards the Visitor’s Centre, we see groups of people sitting halfway up a hill, and more hurrying along. We don’t understand till we hear the tooting of a horn – the original Hogwarts Express huffs and puffs past us.

“Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus”

Edina! Scotia’s darling seat!

July 5, 2017

Day 5

Stansted is a very small airport. For such a small airport, they sure have crazy security procedures and a very long walk to the gates. Also, what’s with the carry-on bag sizes? It’s like the world of flying shrunk overnight. I feel ridiculously out of place with my regular sized carry-on. The husband is sent back to check his in. When he gets to the counter, he realizes he has no cash or card, because his wallet made it through the scanner and is with me on the other side of the security barrier! Finally, they just let him through with the bag. In all this, we make it to the gate just about in time to board our flight. A short nap later, we land in Edinburgh.

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“But Edinburgh is a mad god’s dream.”

-Hugh MacDiarmid

 The second leg of our adventure is about to begin and boy, are we excited about it! Excited and hungry. We head into town, check-in and almost immediately head out to grab lunch. I ask the girls on GirlsLoveTravel FB group for suggestions and reviews and ultimately head to pie maker. Now while two or three pies did fill me up, I would recommend this place more for a late afternoon/early evening snack.

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 Almost as soon as we step out, we see a hop on hop off tourist bus turning into the street. We happily hop on. We complete the entire loop, napping between the dignified old stone buildings on either side of narrow streets, before we hop off at the Edinburgh castle.

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Edinburgh Castle

We join the free tour and get a short lesson in Scottish history. We didn’t get to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham, but we were in time to see it here. Nothing as grand and elaborate, but it still was the changing of the guard ceremony. We explore the old castle a bit and head out into the Royal mile. Back on the bus, we weigh our options – the Queen was in residence at Holyrood palace and throwing a tea party, which we could see from the bus, so it was pointless hopping off there. We get off at the last stop and take public transport to the library. “Which one?” growls the driver. I don’t know! The driver on the other bus said I was to take this one and ask to be let off at the library. The nice ladies behind us offer to show us. There are two libraries in the city, but only one on this route.

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Elephant House Cafe

Edinburgh is  associated with many writers, philosophers, scientists and academics. The one I’m interested in now is J.K. Rowling. We get off at the library, but our destination is not the library, it’s the Elephant Café – the birthplace of Harry Potter (the series, not the character!). Having fulfilled my fan fantasy*, the husband asks, “What’s next?” We hop back on the tourist bus and head to the End of the World.

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There’s no table available, but we squeeze in at the bar. The husband gets his fish and chips (finally!) and beer. When he’s done, we head out in search for a battered Mars bar and dinner for me. The server at the Tavern lets me order even though the kitchen is closing down, only because the battered Mars bar is the only thing I want, and I suspect mainly because of the bump. Satisfied we head towards the Nepali-Indian restaurant for momos (dumplings). We even give up the free ghost tour only for the server to forget – forget to put in the momo order! I was soooo hangry!! Luckily for her, I had ordered an entrée while I was waiting. That, and the husband’s let it go demeanor are what keep me from creating a ruckus. It didn’t stop me though from giving the girl (and her manager) such dirty looks, that she refused to come out of the kitchen the whole time after that.

We walked back to the tram station/bus stop taking in the sights of this old city, letting its character seep into our memories.

 

*  My true fantasy was to meet J.K. Rowling there and have her autograph the Harry Potter series for me and my fanmily.

Tennis Treat – Wimbledon

July 4, 2017

Day 4

Wimbledon. Oh how I’ve dreamed of this day! I found this from a few years ago –

Go watch a Tennis Grand Slam match

With the American Open right around the corner. I might be able to check this off this year. Ideally, I’d like to go for the Wimbledon finals or the French Open, but hey a grand slam is a grand slam right? It would make it even special, if I could see Federer play. It would be like watching Sachin bat, except every time I’ve seen Sachin bat he never it past single digits, lower ones that too.”

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For years, it has been my fondest wish to see watch the Championship live (that or the French Open). Today, we are going to try our luck. Tickets to the Championships get a sold through a lottery system almost a year in advance. A small number of tickets can be bought online on the previous day, but they go fast too. Our best bet was to turn up early and hope to get a grounds pass.  Wimbledon is just a short train ride from London, so we hop on and make it there by around 8:00 a.m. Our number in the queue is eight thousand and something. Here’s where being pregnant worked wonderfully to our advantage. We didn’t get to cut the line, but we are seated comfortable in the “mobility” pavilion till our number was called, as opposed to waiting for five long hours in the heat, in a two-mile-long line.

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It is almost one o’clock (1 p.m.) by the time we get in. We head straight for Court 18, where we know Ferrer is playing Gasquet. After waiting almost an hour in line outside the court, taking turns to wander around and catch bits of other matches, we give up. In the meantime, I also find out that Roger Federer was practicing on Court 10 at around noon, meaning we just missed him. Heartbreak! After spending an hour futilely waiting to get into Court 18, we decide to get some lunch with strawberries and cream after which we have a big decision to make – do we stay or leave; if we stay do we head up to the hill to watch Federer play on a big screen or do we pick a court a watch (relatively?) unknown players play live. We decide to stay and watch a live game. We pick Harrison versus Coric and it turns out to be a very interesting game. Again, the bump gets me a seat. Later, the husband gets to sit too. The game is replete with good tennis and drama, with Harrison lashing out at the chair umpire for what I think was a very valid warning. I am seated next to a little boy, who is cheering hard for Coric. His zeal is so infectious that I find myself rooting for Coric too. Down the game, we are joined by another little boy, cheering for Harrison. Too late, I’ve picked my horse. Too bad, he loses.

We walk around, catching the ends of other interesting games being suggested to us over Whatsapp. Technology, I tell you! Simultaneously, I am also trying to co-ordinate dinner with friends in London. However, it gets too late by the time we reach our hotel and we need to check out and check-in closer to Stansted airport from where we fly to Edinburgh tomorrow. Dinner plans are hastily re-written to grab something on the way.

We are staying at Holiday Inn Express tonight, and I have to say the service was simply not upto the mark. The room was matchbox sized; this is London, we get it, but there is simply no excuse for poor service. We spent the last two nights in a Best Western at Vauxhall. The room was tiny and windowless, but our stay was comfortable. 

Edinburgh, we are coming!

London Baby!

July 3, 2017

Day 3

Ganesh3N will be meeting us at Leicester Square. We have no data, so we are coordinating over (read surviving on) free wifi. Here, we start our tour of London. It’s a very pleasant day; no jackets or hats needed. We walk down to Trafalgar Square, where much to  our amusement there is a sign prohibiting people from feeding the pigeons, prompting the husband and N to comment that it probably put there because of and for tourists like me. Now, if you grew up in India in the 90’s, you must know, that’s what you do at Trafalgar Square!

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Buckingham palace is right around the corner. When we get there, much to my surprise and delight, we see the horse guard marching past. I so did want to see the changing of the guard at the palace, but our delayed flight had put an end to that dream. Unexpectedly seeing the horse guard absolutely made my day. Hereon, nothing could go wrong!

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We are now in  London’s tourist district (I think). One simply needs to stand in the centre and turn around to see most of London’s most iconic landmarks – Westminster Abbey, the houses of Parliament, Big Ben and the fake red phone booths scattered all over London for tourists to pose in. I want to go inside the abbey to see the graves and relive the climax of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci code, but the line is too long. We walk down to 10 Downing Street and then take the ubiquitous London tube to Borough Market. I imagined Borough Market to be a livelier farmer’s market sort of place, but it turns out to be covered marketplace, with designated stalls.  Strangely, many of these are shut. A joins us for lunch. The boys have been absolutely wonderful hosts right from finding us places to order food from late night to accompanying us around the city. They even called Scotland to see if we could try our hand at falconry and looked up last minute tickets to the game at Lords. I suspect they might have ended up seeing and learning more about London than they wanted to!

Ganesh4We stroll down  London Bridge to the Tower Bridge, where we get some amazing pastries while we wait for our boat cruise on the Thames. We can barely hear, much less comprehend what the captain is saying but it’s nice all the same. The new buildings juxtaposed against the old make the waterfront an interesting study. We pass Shakespeare’s Globe, the Shard, that crazy building that melted roofs of parked cars and go all the way to the London Eye. We hop off here and take the underground to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We reach a few minutes before the last mass of the day ended but cannot go in because I was dawdling along, taking in the outside. Next stop Kings Cross.

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We don’t have time (and the others don’t have the inclination) to head across the city to the Fortnum and Mason’s flagship store, so we visit the little one in St. Pancras station across the street from King’s Cross. My big belly gets us/me ahead of the winding queue of Harry Potter fans at Platform no. 9 ¾. Good thing too, as the husband is throwing up his hands at my willingness to wait in queue. The rest of our little group seems more done with the day than I am!

We head over to Dhishoom – the promised Mecca of Indian street food. This place is wildly popular to be prepared to wait. Again, my growing bump gets us place to sit while we wait.  The food surpasses my (admittedly low) expectations and sets a new standard in my eyes. Food is good. Everyone is tired, except me, but I suppose I could use some rest too.

Goodnight London.