Scotland: The Land of Rainbows

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The plan. Or the lack of it.

In 2016, a friend invited me to go to Scotland on a holiday. It was so casually mentioned that it seemed like nothing more than tea-time conversation. Unknown to this friend, however, my ears went all pointy like a mastiff’s at the mention of the country. Many fantasies had been played out in my head in the past – men in kilts playing lilting music atop cliffs with steep drops into blue-green waters… the incredible moors and velvety moss covering it… the food… the near-musical Scottish accent… remembering Skyfall sort of sealed the deal for me. The catch? I only had two and a half weeks to put the plan in motion.

And so came the last-minute rush for the visa. My friend and I decided to leave the stays and places to visit for when I would get my visa – I didn’t know if I would make it, till the last minute. (Big mistake, this lack of planning. An impromptu holiday in Europe is the worst thing that can happen to your savings, especially if you’re Indian, because everything is expensive when you don’t book in advance.)

I waited in anticipation for my visa. Packed my bags. Had multiple conversations with people about where to go and what to do. Kept looking at travel websites for cheaper return flights. Bit my nails till my fingers were tiny stubs. Kept telling myself to not get overly excited because I’d be super-disappointed if the visa fell through. Until finally, my Dad called me at work two days before I was scheduled to leave: “There’s a VFS parcel that’s arrived for you.”

Later that evening, I went home and tore open the package even before saying hello to my parents, preparing my mind for the worst as I did so. I removed my passport with shaky hands and turned the pages one by one, searching, squinting, dreading… where was the darn vi…

There it was, my permission to enter the country, alongside my goony-looking mug shot. I was going to Scotland!_DSC4311

First impressions

Dreamy, like the setting for Wuthering Heights, minus the intense, deeply messed-up characters. A bitter-sweet gloominess, with grey clouds overshadowing a bright blue sky in patches.

Drizzly. It’s not the hard-hitting kind of rain, but just a constant murmur from the sky in the background; you grow oblivious to it pretty quickly.

Nippy. Wonderfully, exhilaratingly nippy. Some would call it cold and chilly, but I was so excited to just be there that the cold didn’t affect me.

It was around 5:45 a.m. when I stepped out of Edinburgh airport. I couldn’t be happier with the early start – I had 10 days in Scotland and was okay with early mornings. Well, some of the time! Question was, with so much to see and do, how could I make the most of its beauty? So here’s the list of places I went to.

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A view of the city from the Edinburgh Castle

Edinburgh

Edinburgh, the hilly capital of Scotland, is one of the oldest cities in the world – and it shows. Everywhere you turn, there are beautiful buildings and monuments that have stood steady over time. The Royal Mile is full of mesmerising churches, offices, hotels and towers. By-lanes are full of restaurants serving everything from Scottish specialties to Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, French, Italian and Indian cuisine. If you do go, don’t forget to visit the Camera Obscura close to the Edinburgh Castle. It’s full of quaint little optical illusions, art pieces and souvenirs to take home.

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The Royal Mile, Edinburgh

The Edinburgh Castle itself will take you an entire day to explore. We didn’t reach it in time to view the crown jewels, which are supposed to be magnificent, but we pretty much covered everything else. The view of the city from the castle walls is simply stunning. You’ll see modern structures sprinkled between ancient architecture; the densely populated areas start thinning towards the edge of the water and merge into the sea. The sight, quite frankly, is magnificent. Pick a guided audio tour and explore at your own pace.

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The chapel inside Edinburgh Castle.

Street performances abound. We caught a fire show, musicians and living statues performing. Towards the evening, my friend decided to head to Arthur’s Seat – a viewpoint atop a hill – and I decided to sit in a park close to the castle and soak in the vibe of the city. A squirrel apprehensively approached a group of teenage hipsters who chased it around. Pigeons pecked, gurgling away. Sea gulls ventured into the park as well. Shops started winding down their shutters. One by one, the lights in the Balmoral Hotel came on. The Scottish monument lit up and like moths drawn to light, people started clumping on benches around it, deep in conversation, cuddling, enjoying a smoke after a long day, eating or just sitting and watching the world go by. Like me.

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Gothic.

As the sun sets, though, Edinburgh takes on a slightly spooky air. You hardly see people milling about after hours (which would be 6:30 p.m. their time). Most move towards the pubs and eateries, but even those places get quite deserted by 9:30 p.m. on weekdays. Friday nights are when the city comes alive, with a rampant and diverse party scene. And those times, it’s like everyone’s oblivious to the chill – there are shorts and fishnet stockings and teensy weensy skirts and spaghetti tops and leather jackets and slit jeans everywhere you look. Edinburgh maybe one of the oldest living cities in the world, but it’s pretty young at heart.

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Inverness through the tour bus window.

Inverness and Loch Ness

If you’re a nature baby, head to Inverness and Loch Ness. The drive to both places is soul-soothing. I mean, what person wouldn’t be moved by massive rolling mountains generously dusted with rich brown and green wilderness, all set against a backdrop of a crystal blue sky and cotton candy clouds? It’s like being in a fairy tale, I tell you.

It kept drizzling as we drove through the highlands. At one point, the road snaked into nothingness between two parallel mountains; as we took a turn, a huge rainbow greeted us – one of the biggest I have ever seen. It was like an archway in the sky connecting the two mountains, and we were crossing under it. Think of the first magic trick you ever saw as a little kid and how it blew you away, mouth agog, eyes wide, completely enthralled and pulled in by the feeling of witnessing something so marvellous. When I saw that rainbow, that’s how I felt. It was the most magical moment I had ever witnessed. Words failed me. They still do, because it’s impossible to describe. And the magic just didn’t stop. There were rainbows everywhere we looked. To me, they’re now just synonymous with Scotland.

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On the way to Loch Ness.

We stopped at the Achnambeithach cottage in Glencoe and caught a glimpse of the three sisters. The cottage is protected by giant mountains on three sides, with a small loch flowing past it in the front and a red bridge connecting it to the highway. This part of Scotland is exactly how you see parts of the Scottish moors in Skyfall, sans the snow. (It was September when we went.) If you’re into trekking/walking, this trail is probably going to take your breath away. (The mere idea of walking/trekking takes my breath away, so you would be accurate in your assumption that no, I didn’t trek through the trail.)

And the hairy coos just add to the whole setting! These massive highland cows with intimidating horns and shaggy hair that give it a wild, unkempt look can only be described by one word: adorable. Personally speaking, their cuteness quotient comes pretty close to cat videos.

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Hairy coos!

Loch Ness, however, is the complete opposite. The loch is so deep (700 feet, I believe) that the water’s the darkest, blackest blue you can imagine. And the surface shines like a mirror. Contrasting this is the sky – at the time we went, it was a crisp blue, with clouds travelling across it. Everywhere else, you would probably see the sky reflected on the surface of the water, but not at Loch Ness. It was almost as if the water swallowed up anything that came close to its surface, despite its mirror-like glaze. I wouldn’t want to fall into the water, for sure.

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Welcome to Loch Ness.

Take the Loch Ness cruise – you’re not likely to spot the monster unless you’re very, very lucky, but you’ll see the glorious ruins of Urquhart Castle and the fields on either side in all their beauty. And don’t forget to pick up souvenirs of Nessie!

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McCaig’s Tower, Oban.

Oban

Because we didn’t plan in advance, doing a whiskey tour and stay on one of the Isles was almost impossible. So we decided on Oban – it was by the sea and not too far from the isles, in case we decided to go over for a day trip. Being a sea-side town, Oban was wet and rainy from the moment we landed there, with McCaig’s Tower, a tower that resembles the Roman Colosseum, overlooking the town.

The winds are mighty in Oban and the seafood is divine. I overdosed on Fish and Chips everywhere I went, so much so that my friend got sick of it by the end. The view of the sea is mesmerising, with the blackness of the waters evident here as well.

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On the floor at Oban Distillery.

Oban is also home to one of the oldest whiskey distilleries in Scotland, circa 18th century. In fact, it pre-dates Oban town and is most likely what gave rise to the settlement around it. The distillery is not too big, but it is quite impressive. Every time I go on a whiskey/wine making tour, my respect for the process and ingenuity of man grows. Oban was no different; the tour began with a quick history of the distillery and then we were taken into the heart of the place. We were requested to switch off our mobile phones because the alcohol content in the atmosphere insane. And boy oh boy, was it! One whiff of the place and you’re high – that’s how potent the smell was. They use recycled oak casks from other distilleries to age their whiskey and once done, pass it along to other distilleries for reuse. So the taste of whiskey, we were told, was quite unique. My friend concurred after taking a sip of the tasters. The barrels aren’t thrown away when they’re done serving their purpose as casks; they’re used as garden planters instead.

We walked around town for a bit and went for dinner by the quay at Eeusk, a highly recommended restaurant serving local seafood. The catch of the day is what’s served as food and because it was fresh, it was one of the best meals ever. Quite expensive, but worth it.

Oban didn’t quite give us the weather we were looking forward to, so we spent just a day there and moved on to Lake District, an hour and a half’s drive out of Scotland and into North West England.

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Lake District in the day.

Lake District

Also known as Lakeland, Lake District is a national park area full of breath-taking sunsets and scenic mountain views. Staying at the YHA in Ambleside, we had the advantage of being close to picturesque walking routes, local restaurants (the.best.chicken.wings.in.the.world) and, most importantly, the church where William Wordsworth worshipped. In fact, he lived in Grasmere and then Rydal for a significant amount of time, which is why Rydal is prominent in English romantic literature. So of course, our first day at Lake District started with a visit to this church. On the way, we encountered plenty of fluffy, woolly sheep (no hairy coos here!) and black and white cows (really!). As luck would have it, the church was closed, so we just took pictures from the outside, walked around and headed towards the mountains at Rydal.

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The church where Wordsworth worshipped.

I hated the climb up the mountain. Not because it was hard, but because one, I was tired after all the walking around; two, it was almost evening and I hate being out in the open in the dark, more so if it’s a place I’m not familiar with; three, I hadn’t exerted myself so much in a while and I was irritated with how unfit I was and how each step drove that home harder. Anyway, once on top, the climb felt totally worth it. I could understand why Wordsworth made Rydal his home and how many hours he must have spent finding inspiration in the views before him. If he ever climbed and didn’t crib like me, that is.

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Walking up the mountains of Rydal.

The next day, we walked through the forest. It was a very long, very cool walk, literally. Delicate-looking wild mushrooms grew in the shelter of tall, giant pine and fir trees. The forest was absolutely quiet, except for a heaving walker/cyclist here and there. Of course I cribbed with all the walking again, but this time, I was better prepared. So I focused on things that matter to me the most in the outdoors – trees, flowers, leaves, ducks, country life… and I ambled along just fine across the forest and later, around Ambleside.

That’s the one thing I envy the most every time I travel abroad: the cities are so pedestrian-friendly. Everybody, absolutely everybody, walks to everywhere. That’s how people go from one point to the other, most times. And it’s really satisfying to watch, because that means lesser traffic on the road and drivers respecting pedestrians, giving them the right of way, because walking is such an inherent part of their lifestyle. Of course, they have the motivation to walk as well. With every other building an architectural delight and every view a scenic one, who wouldn’t want to?

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Lakes, mountains and a lonely cabin.

Winding up

Ambleside was the last leg of our holiday. The next day, we would take the train to London for our flight back. It was bittersweet, that last night at Lake District. The experiences, the food, the walking, the sea, the environment, everything came together in a sea of emotions. I felt… overwhelmed. And grateful. And irritated. And exhausted. And exhilarated. After years and years of desiring to go to Scotland, imagining what it would be like to walk among the moors and feel the biting sea winds and be in this state of perpetual high spirits, I had finally made it. It was an epic holiday in many ways.

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Tried to make friendsheep with this guy, but he didn’t baa-y into the concept. Oh well.

As we journeyed back to London by train, I didn’t take my eyes off the scenery outside my window. In my mind’s eye, every passing tree, every passing cottage, every mountain, stream and lake had a magical rainbow arching over it in a half-sphere. I carried it with me around Piccadilly Circus. Around Trafalgar Square. Around The National Gallery. I carried it with me on my flight back to Bangalore.

That magic rainbow may have bridged the gap between mountains in Glencoe for a brief moment but now, it connected me to Scotland. Forever.

Getting there: Bangalore has no direct flights to Edinburgh, unfortunately. You can choose a stopover at London or one of the Middle Eastern countries. I flew Bangalore-Abu Dhabi-Edinburgh on my way there and London-Kuwait-Bangalore on the way back. The flight times were approximately 14 hours, layovers included.

Go if: You love trekking. And the mountains. And the sea. And seafood. And people. And Scottish accents. And history. And of course, if you love rainbows. :)

Eleven reasons to fall in love with London.

Taxi cab driving down Green Park. Most cabs advertise mobile operators, movies, monuments and plays. I saw only a few that were a classic Black.

*It was with equal parts anxiety and eager anticipation that I waited for the clock to strike 1 a.m on September 22. I heard the driver scream for the car keys from the ground floor of where I live. Soon, doors were shut and the big red suitcase stowed. I had my passport, visa, copies of all the papers and mixed bag of emotions that I always feel before a trip. I was off to London. My first international trip with two days of work and eight days of much exploration.*

The trademark red telephone booths of London. Some of them have ‘Call-me’ ads pasted all over them. And no, I’m not putting that picture up because this is a PG rated blog.

London made it so easy for me to fall in love with it. I was taken by the city’s charm, its ready acceptance of me without question (except for my little foolishness at the UK Border Immigration when the officer held up his index finger to indicate that he wanted me to place my finger on the scanner, and I thought he was asking me to look at the camera above me. I smiled sweetly for five seconds at the camera above till he asked me what I was doing… and yes, he laughed his gut out), its history and quaintness. But above all, a handful of things won me over completely.

The war veterans of New Zealand visiting the war memorial at Green Park.

Underground, marvellous, marvellous Underground!

Should London be the body, then the underground is its nervous system, connecting every inch to one another. Not only is the tube the easiest, cheapest and fastest way to get around London, it’s also the one place where you’ll see life in all its colours. Young and old, buskers and corporate men/women, heavy metal and operatic – everyone takes the tube to everywhere. 

The Piccadilly Line starts from Heathrow airport and goes into the city. Figuring out how the different lines work hardly takes time. And it’s super convenient!
“Stand to the Right”. People on escalators follow a rule – they always stand to the right to let people in a hurry run up/down on the left side. The walls on either side are also great ways to figure out what you want to do with your free time around the area.
Michael Jackson at Hyde Park Corner.

The weather’s volatile

Pouring like a burst water balloon one minute and sunny the next, London’s weather gives Bangalore’s a run for its money. Most people who visit or live in the city complain about the gloominess of the weather, but I think it goes very well with the…aura of London. But a combination of rain and strong winds? A fascinating experience, to say the least: On our second day of sightseeing, we walked in the rain across Green Park to Buckingham Palace and had to fight against the wind to get half-decent pictures. My umbrella turned into a receptacle for rainwater harvesting every two minutes and we had to walk with our back towards the palace to stop ourselves from almost flying. It was hilarious. No, really. We laughed so hard, the Queen could hear us! (She didn’t come out on to the famous Charles-Diana/Will-Kate balcony to shush us, though, what with her being too regal and well-behaved and all.) 

Buckingham Palace in the rain.
From cloudy…
… to sunny in less than three minutes.

The city is so quiet

There’s a lot of hustle and bustle in London, but people go about their work quietly. And drivers almost never honk. Traffic is so, so, so well-organised that my jaw drops even now, when I think of it. People stick to their lanes, let pedestrians cross, wait for other cars from other directions to cross, don’t jump signals and above all, never honk despite heavy traffic and rush hour. Like my colleague’s cousin told us on our way to the airport: “the accepted level of aggression on the roads is biting one’s nails, that’s it”. That’s why one can hear every drop of rain falling on one’s umbrella, birds chirping, the wind blowing and ambulance sirens screeching. But walk into a pub and it’s a completely different ball game.

Plays in full swing at Piccadilly. 
Old magazine store at Soho, another place that’s full of life. Awesome restaurants, sex shops and strip clubs all lit up on the outside, clothes stores, markets, glassware, shoes – there’s something here for all tastes.
Piccadilly Circus, full of big, beautiful buildings and bustling bodies.

Dead poets excite you

Westminster Abbey. It’s massive, beautiful and peaceful. It’s the place where generations of kings and queens have been coronated, married, baptised and buried. The prayer area is breathtakingly beautiful, with carved wooden pews on either sides of the wall for seating and flags of various knights hanging above. The ceilings are exquisite and the stories they hold, innumerable. There are chapels for noblemen and noblewomen, knights and ministers within the abbey. But what moved me most was the Poet’s Corner. Rudyard Kipling, Robert Browning, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, even Chaucer’s grave. To think that I was standing within arm’s distance of the literary geniuses of centuries past! It was a dream come true. Oh, and there was Isaac Newton as well.

So yes, three words to describe the Westminster Abbey experience: Don’t. Miss. It.

The London Eye: the first sight to greet you as soon as you step out of the Westminster underground station. 
The Big Ben as seen from the park adjacent to Westminster Abbey. You can see a hint of the London Eye on the top left corner of the picture, behind the black building.
Westminster Abbey entrance. As intimidating as it is from the outside, it’s beautiful, peaceful and huge inside. Audio guides give you a tour of the entire abbey. I saw the tombs of King Henry the Third, King Edward the First and Third and Richard the Second, along with Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth.
Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey. Chaucer was the first poet to be buried here, sort of starting a tradition that was later followed the burials of literary figures like Charles Dickens and T.S.Eliot.

Every building is full of character

London’s best seen by foot. There are hop-on, hop-off tours that take you around the city in a day, but I would recommend walking. If you make Piccadilly Circus your base camp of sorts, all other landmarks are within 20 minutes walking distance from there. The advantage of this is that you’ll see other buildings that aren’t landmarks, but are just as old and just as beautiful. We walked down Parliament Street and, my goodness, that is one lane that makes you take a second – and a third – look at every structure you pass by!

10 Downing Street. (“Hello Prime Minister, hello! It’s meeee!”)
Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. Only managed to see them by night, and that too from a distance. Maybe next time.
Catching a drink in a pub at Parliament Street. Walking down this road was an absolute delight because of the beautiful architecture.
One of the many universities of Oxford.

 

Nature has so many colours in her London wardrobe

Despite the cold weather, there are fresh shades of green everywhere, interspersed with bunches of flowering purples, oranges, yellows, reds and whites. We were lucky to see the beginnings of autumn, so trees were turning a deep red, bright yellow or dull brown. It’s a lovely visual treat. 

Trees in shades of yellow lining the roads of Weybridge.
Red creeping up the wall of a tavern in the countryside. Took my breath away.
More colour!
The beginnings of Autumn.

Fish and chips, mate!

‘Nuff said.

Yummy in your tummy. Food’s never pre-seasoned, so you have to add salt to most of it.

 

The English Countryside is delightful

This is where London gets its charm from, I’m telling you. We managed to see some of it on our way to Bath. The countryside is everything you imagine it to be: lush green pastures with plump white, brown and black cows grazing, sheep heavy with wool munching away at the grass against blue skies and an endless vista of planes and mountains, wild berries and Lavender growing on the roadside, quaint little stone huts and bakeries and farms with vines growing all over dotting the landscape… *Sigh*

Hello Cows!
Hello, roles of hay!
Hello Swan!

Bath is beautiful

It’s quiet, colourful and feels like you’ve entered a part of England that belongs in the 16th century. One can spend hours sitting on the benches behind the Bath Abbey eating ice cream and listening to random opera singers perform for gathering crowds in the hope of being spotted by a talent scout, or buying souvenirs, or walking the tiny lanes around the town, or admiring the glassworks that the place is known for.

The Roman Bath, the main attraction of Bath. It was closed when we reached, but i managed to get a sneak peek through the walls.
The evening we were at Bath, an opera singer just walked up, placed her speakers, her music system and her cards around her, and began singing next to the Bath Abbey. The setting sun, nip in the air, swaying flowers, and fabulously constructed town came alive with her haunting voice. I didn’t want to leave.
A hand-blown glass store in Bath.
Bath Abbey against the late evening sky.

London takes good care of its heritage

The respect Londoners have for their heritage and rich history shows clearly in how well they’ve maintained the city. Every bulb that lights up the London Bridge works, every street lamp shines, every road is free of potholes, every bit of the old architecture remains unblemished and every monument is well-preserved. The audio aids they provide visitors to places that need guided tours is amazing. Having never experienced it before, I wondered why we never adopted such a simple yet effective method of telling stories about our monuments. It was only today that I discovered that apparently, some places in India are starting to do that.

River Thames with the London Bridge in the background. We wanted to go on a Thames cruise, but none of them were available, so we had to make do with seeing other people cruising along sipping tea and listening to jazz and seeing all of London’s sights.
The Tower Bridge parting to let a big ship pass by. Watching it go up and then come down to transform into a regular-looking road was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve had.
The Tower Bridge by night.
Little Venice, the name for the canal full of Gondolas and colourful boats outside Paddington Station.

Windsor has some very pretty sights

Windsor Castle is apparently the weekend getaway for the Queen and pretty as a picture. It overlooks most of London and is full of richly furnished rooms and a whole hall of arms and artillery. St.George’s chapel has marble sculptures that are absolutely exquisite. There’s one in particular that I just cannot get over – a scene showing a dead maiden (a princess or noblewoman, I cannot remember) covered completely by a shroud, except for a part of her hand that peeks out from under, as women covered in shrouds mourn her passing and her soul, flanked by angels on either side, flies to its freedom towards Heaven. The craftsmanship is so delicate and detailed that the marble is sculpted to look like shrouds clinging to the bodies and a white sheer fabric falling along the curves of the free soul. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

We attended evensong in the prayer room, seated on pews where once England’s clergy and royalty sat, surrounded by shining plaques of several knighthoods and a mesmerizing tapestry of Jesus with his disciples. Add to this the church choir, and the whole experience gave me goose bumps.

Once out, there are lots of quaint little places to eat in, market streets to walk down and a part of the Thames to admire.

Inside the premises of Windsor Castle. I was amazed by the riches on display here. I asked a skirted 50-something lady standing guard in the queen’s drawing room about what it felt like to be surrounded by such beauty and opulence and she told me, “At first, you’re like oh my gosh this is so awesome and i’m so lucky, but then you start getting used to it. And I’ve been here for over 13 years, so…” Wow. I would kill to be surrounded by such stuff. Photography isn’t allowed inside the castle, unfortunately, so i have no visual proof of its beauty.
St.George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle. I loved the interiors more than i loved Westminster Abbey.
The magnificent pipe organs of St.George’s Chapel. Everything in the chapel gets a dusting once a year.
Homes of the knights of the orders, opposite St.George’s Chapel. And no, they don’t walk around in armour and Victorian suits and all. They wear jeans and a t-shirt like normal people.
Life as usual, outside Windsor Castle.
Sunset by the Thames, Windsor.

There’s a little bit of India everywhere

London is full of Indians, so you won’t really feel out of place. East Hampton, the part of London where most Indians reside, is like the map of India scattered over a handful of streets. Sarvana Bhavans, Anand Bhavans, Kerala supermarkets and food joints co-exist with Hyderabadi Biryani and much, much more. And yes, Indian bonding is big. When we went for an Indian breakfast one day, we were warned to not speak English because it’s frowned upon. People prefer speaking in an Indian language (preferably Tamil).

East Hampton or Shivajinagar? Good question. :)
A different window display: Students looking for accommodation outside a store that displays ads and messages for spaces.

So that’s that. London’s a big city, so we didn’t cover a lot of places because we didn’t have enough time. Whatever I did see, I loved. My verdict? You must visit London at least once in your lifetime. And since I’ve done that already, I have all the time in the world to plan another holiday there!

Marching Guard, Windsor Castle.

Getting there: Flight only. Preferably British Airways because it’s damn comfortable.

Go if: You love history, architecture, cultural experiences, photography, food, the countryside and want to experience the lives of people who ruled us once. :)