Tuesday, August 14, 2007

A tale of 3 cities

… and a few other towns, couple of places and some airports

Note: This is a delayed post

I've never left the shores of India before, so it was with some trepidation and loads of excitement that I commenced on my first overseas journey.

My first learning: trans-continental flights are not as fun as they are made out to be. The first few hours are fun indeed - the duty free shops, losing sight of the country's shores for the first time, playing with the AV displays, chatting with an overseas crowd - all great fun; but the long travel duration coupled with the fact that one has but about 200 feet to ambulate around, suck the life force out of you (I'm exaggerating, of course, but it sort of gets there after some time).

London

London is such a beautiful city, a totally awesome place, and I loved it. It has a melodramatic South Mumbai feel to it - the impressive European architecture, the narrow stone-paved & cemented roads, the verdant gardens, the multi-cultural multi-ethnic people, the beautiful cars, and coming from Chennai - the fact that it rains all the while.

The Heathrow Airport is filled with Indians, from the luggage handlers and airport staff to a lot of the travelers. The Heathrow Connect, which starts beneath the airport whisked me off to Paddington, close to Hyde Park, where I was put up.

London is filled with historical attractions, understandably, given its place in history. Almost every road and street corner has something for a history buff, and the best part is that the most famous ones are concentrated in an area that can be covered by foot - or at least, by foot and a bit of the tube (as they call the underground train system).

The Tower of London, people told me, is a must-visit for any tourist to London. My opinion - it’s a tad costly for a fort whose only "aha!" attractions are the crown jewels and the Kohinoor diamond. The crown jewels, are impressive indeed, but once you've seen a set they're all the same, just a huge set of diamonds and jewels of every type and form. The Kohinoor of course, is a worthy sight - a huge diamond with a bluish transparent tinge. All said and done, I think the Tower is a lot of hype, Hyderabad's Golconda Fort would any day beat the attractions of the Tower by a mile. Ah yeah! its just those 13 pound entrance fees making me crib.

The Tower Bridge, is unarguably, London's most photographed spot. It's a delightful experience to prance about the bridge looking down at the cruises and trawlers plying on the Thames.

The Buckingham Palace has a beautiful motif at its main entrance with imposing facades from all sides. A great experience it is, to walk from the Palace, along the Mall, onto Trafalgar Square and then onto Piccadilly. Piccadilly has a huge electronic advertising billboard that’s certainly a watch at night. The lane that leads from Piccadilly station to Leicester square and beyond is a beautiful market-place, with milling crowds and a great carnival atmosphere.

The Kensington Gardens and the Hyde Park form a huge verdant garden enclave with the Kensington palace, the Andrews amphitheatre, the adjoining embassy residences and the bustling Notting Hill; and is a delight to wander in about.

In sum, I totally fell in love with London, its architecture, its culture and its people. If only it were not that costly a city to live in ...

Chicago

The Chicago O'Hare Airport is considered to be one of the busiest airports in the United States. I'd never been to a huge football-field-sized airport before (heathrow is large yes, but its much better compartmentalized) and one that has a roller-coaster of a train traversing between terminals; I had a great time ambling about - forgetting the obnoxious immigration and security officials.

Chicago is a beautiful, large city with huge sky-scrapers, beautiful gardens, a great waterfront, awesome museums and an avant-garde culture. It’s a city that seamlessly merges the ultra-modernism of its financial and shopping districts with its cobbled streets that ooze the Al Capone-movie feel.

The Magnificent Mile - the central shopping area - and arguably Chicago's most famous walkway is a delight to walk along both in daylight and at night; the numerous boutiques and shops that line the mile, the awesome cars that whiz by and the buzzing crowds filled with tourists, make it a worthwhile experience. The Central Park Area presents an awesome exhibition of modern art and sculpture is certainly a joy to behold.

The museum district is a must-visit and one needs to take time making a walkthrough - for the wealth of material and the form of presentation is impressive; I went into Field's Museum, thinking it'd be another of the lot I've visited over and over again, only to come out wow-ed by the quality of the presentation and the extent of detail - definitely needs a full day for a justifiable tour.

The boat ride on the lake Michigan is another wonderful experience, and presents a great panorama of Chicago's spread-out coastline and sky-scraper filled skyline. And the Navy Pier, where a lot of these boat-rides commence, presents a perpetually carnival atmosphere.

The only off-aspect, probably not related to the city, is the METRA rail system. We were half way on a 2 hour train journey when the train came to a grinding halt and came a broadcast: "We are sorry but we have a goods carriageway on our track which would take delay us by approximately 15 minutes" - a 15 minutes that became 30, 45, 1 hour and finally 2 hours. So it’s the same ol' Indian Railways blues everywhere...

Continued a little later...
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