Nov 11, 2005

Day 2 : I have been upto London

All pumped up I woke up early the next day. Jet lag also probably had something to do with it.

CC and AC were the most hospitable people I have ever met. They plied me with so much food that I had to thrust my whole body across the plate to stop them from serving further. AC looked really hurt when I declined the sweet after breakfast. I had to make up for it by drinking another cup of chai.

Loaded with a heavy breakfast, I set off and caught the tube to Waterloo station. It was a cloudy day, not as sunny as the previous day, but it wasn’t raining and I liked the cool breeze tugging at my hair and the dull sun hiding behind the mass of gray clouds.

We got out of the station and I had my first look at the Big Ben and the Parliament. The clock tower rising against the gray sky, with the houses of parliament in the background was a feast to the eyes. I walked around studying the Victorian gothic building, which seemed more ornate to me than the other buildings because of the protrusions and the way the windows were set.

Parliament was in session that day. I asked the young lady near the gate if public were aloud to watch the debates and if I could. It turned out that particular day they were expecting twenty thousand people there in the next hour or so to protest against trade practices. I noticed the banners stuck on the quadrangle commenting on war. “Stop killing Iraqi babies,” one of the banners insisted. I saw a lot of press photographers with their state of the art equipment setting up and policemen lining up. Decided I was better off catching it later in the BBC, besides I didnt want to be caught protesting against something without knowing the exact details. I had a vague feeling though it might be something good for third world countries (my friend who reprimands me for that term, please read it as developing countries) though you’d never know.

We crossed the parliament square, gazing at the statues. Ah there he was – Mr.Winston Churchill. Surprisingly I came across a statue of Abe Lincoln too. It was about 10:00 AM, so I suggested we go to Buckingham Palace and watch the change of guards. SR enthusiastically agreed to walking there. I crossed the Westminster Abbey, deciding to go in later and walked towards the palace.

On the way was St.James Park, which I mistook to be Hyde park first. What a delightful place! I walked on the pavement under the shade of an avenue of trees. The fallen leaves made a soggy bed. A few mid-morning joggers were treading softly, geese cackled, ducks swam. This well designed, well maintained park, so close to the top tourist sights, should itself be listed in all the brochures. It sure was a much more beautiful sight than the palace I came upon.

I took a few pictures of the Buckhingham palace, promptly lost interest in the two guards who were walking this way and that and wandered off to the Victoria memorial.

This was a monument to the empire and the virtues and morals of Victorian England. Coming from India, I ought to spend a few minuets there. “So you were the first Empress of India, huh?” I asked her. Victoria Regina Imperatrix seemed to have had a nose job. She sat there regal as ever, ignoring me. The sculptures were marvelous. I took quite a few pictures, especially fascinated by ‘Courage’. I joined the crowd that was patiently waiting near the gates. There was a big board that said the next changing of guards was the next day, but no one seemed to mind it much. I could hear Russian, French and many other languages. Obviously England had a lot of tourists from outside the country.

After about half an hour wandering around that area, watching the occasional car that went past and the dapperly clad men and women who got down, it became pretty clear there wasnt going to be a change of guards. Staring at the two guards would bore anyone and it was a big surprise to see the crowd patiently waiting.

AS decided to stop in the gallery shop. I wasnt keen on buying a teapot with the royal insignia or a ruler with the Windsor family tree in the back. I agreed with SS’s declaration it was time for lunch. After picking up a nice sandwich at TESCO, we sat down on a bench in St.James park. One of the top ten lunch breaks I have had in my life. I was so enamored by this park that I spent time there, probably at the cost of visiting some palace nearby, but it was worth every second.

Next on the list was Westminster Abbey. I walked in staring at the beautiful stained glass windows ahead and after a minute looked down and read what was written. “Here lies..” To my utter horror I realized I was actually standing on a tombstone. I quickly moved afraid I had committed something sacrilegious. But where to move? Maybe to that of the next guy. I slowly realized it was alright and that they actually buried people inside. Somehow I had been completely unaware of this and I was looking around every minute or two to make sure others were indeed walking about. It seems it was an honor to be buried there. After that it was a matter of spotting famous people from Dryden to Newton (Literary reference – check, Da vinci code reference – check). I have never seen so many famous names in one place. I spent some time studying the stained glass windows and the enclave where coronation takes place. The history and personalities associated with the place humbled me a bit. I had to pause when I encountered Darwin and Maxwell for example.

I got out to see it was raining. This was a good time to spend inside some museum. I voted for the British Museum, SS and AS voted for Madame Tussuad's, SR shook his head, refusing to side me, so off we went to Baker street.

Madame Tussad is a rip off. Yes, wax dolls are great and yes, some of them looked realistic, especially if they werent modeled after some famous people. But if taking a picture with Jennifer Lopez (which I didnt) or Will Smith (which I did) isnt your thing, I wouldnt recommend it. Aishwarya Rai was missing much to SR’s disappointment, Amitabh didnt look much like him, much to my disappointment. I did take pictures with the Dalai Lama, Patrick Stewart, Picasso and Einstein laughing inwardly at the way I was showing off. I decided to skip the chamber of horrors since it wasnt my thing. Did a 3-D photo of my face - my own chamber of horror. After coming all the way to Baker street, I had to stop at the Sherlock Holmes monument.

Next stop was Trafalgar square. It happened to be the bicentenary year of the battle of Trafalgar. It was a rainy evening, the pigeons must have decided to hide someplace dry. The fountains and the lights were on. I have been reading up a lot on the Napoleonic wars recently – including some interesting counter point books which talks about England funding countries/groups outside to fight Napoleon and how while talking of the power lust of Napoleon, it was England that was engaged in battles in far away places like India. Whatever it may be, the battle of Trafalgar is an interesting study and Nelson is clearly one of the big heroes in England.

I lingered in the nice square studying the base of the monument and then realized the National gallery was open for extended hours that day. What a splendid bonus, I literally ran in.

Once in, I was actually quite at loss – there were so many of my favorite paintings and I didnt know what to do. I dont think the awe of actually seeing a Turner or Van Gogh subsided sufficiently for me to appreciate what I was seeing. Monet! Constable! Reubens! You name it, you got it! And then ofcourse Leonardo! I could sit and see the Madonna’s face on the ‘Virgin of the rocks’ for hours together. I had recently read about the infra-red detection of a painting underneath and also there was the Davinci Code reference. But all that became irrelevant at the sheer pleasure of gazing at the master’s work.

I wasn’t familiar with the works of Courbet before I visited the National Gallery. His ‘Still Life with Apples and a Pomegranate’ – captured me. I kept going back to it. The fact that he had drawn it while in prison fascinated me even more.

I finished the day off with a nice pasta dish at the gallery restaurant. Walked back in the rain to the tube station. Went to sleep with the colors of the apples and the sunset of “The Fighting Temeraire” filling my dreams.

November 11, 2005