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Monday, Sep 30, 2002

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Vibrant London

Preeti Mehra

There's too much to do, too much to see. London leaves you wanting more of it, says Preeti Mehra.

The Houses of Parliament, London

Maybe we were expectionally lucky, but out of the fortnight in London, we had 14 days of sunshine. It gave us the opportunity to witness London in its most vibrant form.

What strikes you first in the midst of this cosmopolitan city is the method in the hustle and bustle. Whether you take the local buses, the underground tube or travel by private car or cab, at every point there are rules to be followed, guidelines to be adhered to and clear, simple directives that make London a cakewalk for the first-time visitor. (Only remember to carry some pounds in change along or get it at Heathrow, for public transport is not geared towards a five-pound note, the lowest currency you get when you leave India.)

Before leaving we read the extensive literature put out by the British Tourism Authority, with maps, details alongside. And though it made us much more wiser about the country and London city in particular, what it did do was make our choice of the places we'd like to visit even more difficult.

There was too much to see, too much to do and each destination was a world of its own that needed hours to explore.

"A lot of the museums are situated close together, you can walk from one to the other," said a friend. What he did not say was that each had floors and floors to be explored, easily taking the entire day ... where was the time to walk to the next one?

But we did do as many museums as we could — the National Gallery was the first stop and rightly so, as it opened out before us what we had dreamt of seeing — paintings by the Great Masters. The Sainsbury Wing took us back from 1250 to 1500 and there before you were the originals of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Bellini — name them and they were there for your eyes to feast on.

The West Wing housed originals from 1500 to 1600, North Wing from 1600 to 1700 and East Wing brought you to the 1900s, including Turner, Constable, Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Degas. By now we'd had too much in too little time.

The historic Windsor Castle.

And outside at the busy Trafalgar Square, with its elegant fountains and statues where visitors were rollicking in the water, lunch time had been long over. Of course, to catch a meal at this largely tourist-oriented circle was no problem, but we had to watch our pounds as the formal restaurants can easily turn your pockets in.

So we did what most were doing, chose a wayside cafe, sunk our tired selves into chairs along the walkway and sunk our teeth into sandwiches, salads, pies and cakes.

The museum circuit continued into many more days with the British Museum, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the London Transport Museum and the Design Museum. The most spectacular exhibition among them all was one called, Turbulent Landscapes at the Natural History Museum. Through unique installations the phenomenons of nature were brought alive — how the cyclone is formed, how the sand dunes shift, how a ripple is formed and so on.

But London is a lot more than just its museums and soon we were viewing the long and winding Thames river at its Richmond end. From there on with a friend we went to Windsor Castle and ah! here were the cobbled streets, the picture-postcard castle and quaint shops selling souvenirs and books. Windsor is only 21 miles west of London, the weekend residence of the Queen.

Windsor, in the same way as London, has its own Hop On-Hop Off bus with a 24-hour valid ticket and 10 stops including Eton College where Prince William studied. The most interesting shop at the Windsor market place, where we stopped off to have a salad and sandwich lunch and organic ice cream, was Castle Studio. At the beginning of the studio street stood a `fair maiden', dressed in Victorian style, beckoning visitors to walk in and get themselves photographed in a dress of the old times.

Close to Windsor is Legoland, and for children, specially if their birthday happens to be in London, it is a must. On the same lines as Disneyland, but very different, the sprawling theme park has almost everything built in Lego, some even larger than life. Demarcated into different sections, several according to age, Legoland has some great rides for kids and educational centres where children can explore their creative abilities. What we enjoyed best was the 4D Lego racer film at the Imagination Centre. Yes, one was familiar with 3D, but 4D where the senses actually experience the environment such as the rain, snow and wind, made it a unique experience and "out of the world" for kids.

We also desired to experience the off-beat London away from its tourist sites. And we did, with a visit to Hamstead Heath, the highest hill-side, where the grass grows tall and swan-speckled lakes and ponds lie calmly under the sunshine. The view of entire London is spectacular from here, especially if you have had a leisurely lunch at a picturesque pub in Hamstead just before that.

In the city too, there is the tourist circuit and the everyone's circuit. London would not be itself without the Covent Garden square, a cobbled street market place that comes alive every evening. From the afternoon onwards, and specially on the weekends, Covent gardens is home to musicians, artists, magicians, circus artists, calligraphers — you name them and they are here making a living and livening the atmosphere. One sunny Saturday, Jump Zone, a trampoline company put up their equipment and invited children to jump "as high as the sky". Safe and yet exciting, children flock to it like bees to honey, paying up for the experience.

London's shops too offer interesting variables. While you have Harrods and Hamley's offering you big buys, you also have the small quaint ones selling second-hand porcelain, shipping antiques, organic foods, vegan dishes and even coffee from every part of the world. Ah! to sit on the street-side Coffee Company and savour flavours from Uganda, Kenya, Columbia, Guatemala and Nicaragua.

Shopping, however, especially if you're the kind looking for cheese and chocolates to take home, is best done at Sainsbury's, Tescos or any of the food chains that dot the city. Here it is cheap and best, but remember not to constantly convert from pounds to rupees because that's a sure way to ruin your holiday.

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