Saturday, February 11, 2012

24/12/2011 Bound for Dubai and then Singapore on Christmas Day

Dubai is about the souks, abras and stunning sunsets

We reached Dubai at 7 am or 3am London time. I did not managed to catch any sleep in the flight and was completely stoned by the time I reached Dubai. It was a painful, slow wait at the immigration plus quite a long ride ( by Arabian Adventures via Emirates ) to Rolla Residence Apartment at Al Rolla Street ( $270, triple, Emirates stopover special ). By the time we got to our room, it was way past 9.30am. All of us were completely bushed although we were briefly awed by the ridiculously huge apartment. It was a pity the posh serviced apartment  furnished with free  internet connection,  kitchen,  2 toilets, a large hall and a huge bedroom were not well utilized  since  our stopover was barely 24 hours .
We tore ourselves from  very comfortable beds after  our nap at 12.30 pm and made our way about the area. Al Rolla St is a residential area, predominantly Indian at the Bur Dubai side of the Creek. We had a glorious Indian lunch ( butter chicken, badami, paneer kofta, naan and rice for merely 105 Dhm ) , at Nawab Indian restaurant along Au Ain Centre , our second this holiday, and raved about almost everything that went into our mouths.
Dubai by the creek, at the spice souk

It was then a short taxi ride ( 15.50 Dhm, with a 50 cents discount because the cabbie was out of small change ) to the Old Diera side of the Creek, the Spice Souq.

The sight that greeted me was unbelievably beautiful - the smell of spices, the songlike calls for prayer around us, swirling seagulls and sun soaked tourists taking the Abra. Everything excited me  I could barely contain my excitement and turned left and right to seize the moment. The sky lines of old mud houses arising above the spice souq and modern planes flying by above us  all added to its quaintness. The experience was very unlike that I had in London. There and then I was glad for this very expensive and trouble-laden stopover.

The shop where I bought my spices
We weaved through the souq and along the last part of our excursion there, bought 5 g(!) of saffron for 30 Dhm, about $10 ( incredible, I know ! )  , 100g of both pistachio and hazel at 10 Dhm each. The locals were concluding their afternoon siesta with spiced tea and we had too ours at 2 Dhm, which was very , very good. To end the spice souq outing, I bought 3 dried lemon ( Limo-amani ) at 3 Dhm , not exactly cheap.

That's me buying a bit of everything
 I am one of those swimmers who has an insane fear of boat rides so a decision to conclude our visit at the creek with a boat ride was a record breaking decision for me. I initiated an Abra ride, at 1 Dhm per person  across the Creek, much to Pat's and H's pleasure. 

It was a smooth ride by an experienced boatman, together with 9  other people. Seated sideways on the weathered but sturdy abra  , we soaked in the low afternoon sun across the Creek, gulls swirling , abra-loads of tourists back from where we came. What an experience !

Abra station across the creek, old souk side
We disembarked at the abra water taxi stop at the Bur Dubai side and walked  along  the Old Souq housed in an alley covered by ancient timber roof and flanked by quaint mud walls. Persistent traders hawked their goods of silk, pashmina and cashmere but we were unimpressed. We stopped by the Dubai Museum to admire the old mud fort but did not enter, by now sundown. Mindful that we have yet to enjoy the room , we bought chicken wraps and falafel sandwich back ( taxi 10 Dhm ) at a rare hole-in-a-wall and marveled at our unique experience.
Patient passengers
A modern market in the oldest market in Dubai

Pat had his after dinner nap while H and I had our Hollywood fix until midnight when we checked out. Arabian Adventure representative provided the airport pickup from Rolla where we made the last leg of the holiday - back to Singapore.

Friday, February 10, 2012

23/12/2011 Our last day in London

St James Park teems with wild life

We had a good night's rest at 8 Cranley Gardens Hotel, most probably because of the lack of hot water woes. Cranley came with a light continental breakfast which was a non event. We paid all of the 125 GBP in cash and trudged back to Gloucester Rd's apartment, not surprised to see that we still have no hot running water. No shower was possible before our flight which annoyed me to no end. APLH was most apologetic and had many people calling to check on the situation.

With our plans thrown awry, we decided to head towards St Jame's park which lead to the Buckingham palace. The park is one of the most delightful places in England, with squirrels, pelicans, cranes and all sorts of birds roaming free at close range.

Buckingham Palace
Buckingham is an attraction to hoards of tourists despite the next changing of the guards being on the next day, which we would not get to see. No matter, because the other 2 members snapped candid shots of tourists which I thought were excellent photos.

Capturing a magic moment outside Buckingham Palace
An awesome lunch on our last day in London
For want of somewhere to eat, we walked to Hyde Park corner where more statues waited to be photographed. These were immense and beautiful, the only shortcoming being the grey skies. Even at the tube station , we were still debating what and where to eat. H had the honor of settling our differences and opted for familiar Gloucester Rd. We had already decided to revisit good old Pasha when we stopped to browse the menu at Light of India. The eureka moment was sealed and we had our first and last indian meal ( naan, korma, lamb tikka, panneer, pappadum 40 GBP )  in London, which I must say Was Very Good ! Sometimes impromptu choices could just be as good as preplanned ones.
Our lunch place near our condo

2pm back 'home' and Pat had his siesta while I received news from APLG that we would be reimbursed 150 GBP for the hotel's stay and trouble ( through the Visa account ). Better some compensation than never and I must remember to drop a charitable note at TA for this agent.

22/12/2011 Thursday and a water crisis in the condo

No water in our apartment did not stop us from enjoying the day at Borough Market

Wynne, APLH's rep , called that morning, and asked me to do some troubleshooting, totally ignoring that it was 4am. Cold water was trickling from the tap, but nope, still no hot water.

Borough Market is all about food
By 8am, many calls were made by different people from APLH but even a visit by APLH's  rep to the apartment at 8.30am did little to fix the problem. Cold water was restored , the pump resumed working but there was not even a drop of hot water from the tap.

Veggie stall which was said to be patronized by J Oliver.
We went about London, half worried about the water problem with APLH's plumber scheduled to visit the apartment while we were out. We visited Borough market and experienced a crowd many times what we saw  the last visit. I bought cheeses , 5 types in total. Lunch was simple , delicious street fare of sandwiches and burgers. We ate standing but enjoyed every morsel. The weather was cool but sunny , the perfect day for a market visit.

Seriously delicious fresh fig
Bread, bread and more bread !
Kings college medical department was around the corner and we dropped by to get an undergraduate prospectus. We conducted a self guided tour, which was not at all informative. The tour did not meet the main objective of understanding the ins and outs of themedical school  because of the spartan information gleaned from the tour.

We missed all the hourly window shows at Fortnum and Mason
The second highlight of the day was tea at Fortnum and Masons. Although our reservation was for 5.30pm, I tried my luck and got ourselves a table at 4pm.  This was a peek into what a English butler service might be, with accomodating and attentive waiters and exquisite tea bites. The tea,  served in F&M tea china set, was delicate, which I believe was partly due to the type of water used. H didn't think much of the live piano music in the background while Pat suggested requesting a piece of music. We voted no.

Not a real meal, the entire F&M experience cost  a mini fortune of 110 GBP. I was very out of character to even plan this but H's piano teacher raved about it and we simply had to verify it. As hearsay goes, F&M's high tea experience was matched by its price without an overly exclusive ambience.

Endless supply of cakes
It was a fortunate thing  we had tea early (  till 6pm ) , between which Pat had to liaise with APLH regarding alternative accommodations for the night. From our observation, the water heater most probably burnt out but the plumber had indicated that there was a problem with water supply in South Kensington. We verified with our neighbor that it was not true.

Some more photo sessions at PicadillyCircus after  F&M's high tea and then it was time to check out the situation at our apartment. It was unfortunate hot water was not restored by the time we were back and we had to spend our last night in London in  a hotel instead of the apartment.

Crisis management mode kicked in and we packed and sought lodging at Cranley Gardens Hotel ( 8 Cranley Rd )for 125GBP a night, a small fortune considering it was for us to bathe and sleep for the night before heading back to the apartment at Gloucester Rd for packing up. APLH promised to reimburse us and we hope they will honor their words.

Cranley Gardens Hotel was cozy but since we have grown used to a big apartment, the hotel room was uncomfortable for us.  This experience, of leasing the apartment from the agent instead of the owner, proofed the severe shortcoming of the lack of ownership of problems from the apartment , since we could not make contact with the agent outside working hours and weekends. Had we encountered this problem last weekend, we would have had a miserable time with freezing weather and water.

21/12/2011 UCL , Rev K at Rayleigh, Essex and a watershutdown!

Pantheon goes UCL !
Wednesday started out well, with a nice sleep in and  then a leisurely visit to UCL. Its  façade did not exude grace and history like the campus in Oxford or Cambridge but it was the only uni that allowed a self guided tour.
Rosetta stone
We walked down Gower St and decided to revisit the British Museum, which we did not complete the last time, 7 years ago. It was strangely crowded and we toured the place for slightly over an hour, just to see the mummies.

Bric Bracs from the British Museum
At 3.00pm, we caught the train at Liverpool to Essex to visit  Rev K. It was a time for  catch up , followed with a huge lamb meal. Re K would have been a successful stand up comedian who could make us laugh the entire night. As for offering advise on H's future education, he thoughtfully said ' Just take your time to decide'. Stop. ' Just go to Oxford'. Once an Oxfordian, always an Oxfordian.
Our last stop of the day - Essex

We only managed to reach 'home' at 9.30pm

The day did not end well, because Pat, the last person to bathe, was caught with no water and had to wipe off the soap off his body with drinking water. The agent was not contactable and we were caught between a rock and a hard place. No one to call, no concierge, we went to bed at 1am after failing to fix the problem of a water shutdown.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

20 Dec 2011 Dover and the White Cliffs

We took a train out to Dover ( Priory ), a 2 hour ride from Victoria. In order to ride cheap, we took the 9.30am train and only managed to reach Dover terminus at almost noon.

Buses cost 2 GBP per person from station to east pier so we opted for the cheaper option, the white cliff taxi. From the pier, we hiked up the white cliff where the national heritage trust is and had a simple lunch at its cafe.
Winter flowers on the white cliffs of Dover
Where we had lunch.Dover port was below the cliff.
We walked beyond the café's carpark, where a panaromic view of the chalky white cliff met us, still resplendent  in the low sun. I was shivering from fear of heights though I know any kind of mistake will just land me at the Saxon walk, a grassy walkway 10 m down, instead of the sea. The chalk on the floor has yet to dry from the previous day's rain and our shoes became muddy and sticky from the clay and chalk.
Dover town and castle in the distance.It was recently decommissioned from duty
Nearing 3pm when the sun was nowhere to be seen, we retraced our path down the cliffs, now made shorter by familiarity. We called for a taxi to town, where we posted a card to ourselves. With the help from the town's tourist staff, we trekked back to Dover priory and by 5pm, was homebound to London.
Dover has lots of this beautiful plant

19 Dec 2011 Mon Cambridge

Cambridge station.A future Cambridge student surveys the platform.
If there is one summary I can make of old England, it would have to be 'education'. It was the country of choice of further education, with most of my friends landing in Sheffield. When Pat did his sabbatical studies in Imperial, I thought it was moving a notch upwards in academic society. But of course,  the best British education would come from  Oxford and Cambridge, the latter's namesake the suffering of thousands every year in their school leaving exam.

We took the 8.30 am train from Liverpool, a very long ride from Gloucester Rd Station ( 26 GBP offpeak, return with F&F railpass ). It chugged for almost 2 hours, calling at every port until it terminated at Cambridge. Unlike Oxford, the town center was located quite a distance away and in what felt like -5C, I had no mood to walk towards town. Almost everyone hopped up Citi 1 to the town center and the kindly driver even alerted everyone when we were there.

Christ Church College, Cambridge
Cambridge university town is a bigger town, with some its most famous colleges located along the river Cam. The beautiful façade of the most famous colleges, Kings College, Trinity college and the magnificant St John's College were enough to inspire any Cambridge uni wannabe.
Because we were at the punter part of the boat,we had his legs in most of our pics

We grabbed a hot spud breakfast from the market square and plonked down 25 GBP for a punt session on the river, a discount haggled from Pat ( a rare feat, not the discount but the bargaining ! ) Together with 9 other people, we punted under the Bridge of Sighs and the Mathematical Bridge, with the ducks for accompany alongside our boat. The colleges, which were all out of bounds to the public, could only be admired from the river ,which is public space. The buildings were left intact, and forms a wonderful  heritage in the minds of those who walked past its halls. I could now understand why Harry Potter was shot and filmed in these beautiful grounds.

Lunch was a greasy affair at the Eagle Pub, made famous because the discovery of DNA was announced there. Other than H's crabcakes, Pat and my greasy lunch of beef wrap and steak pie were non-events.
Our lunch place, were the discovery of DNA was announced

Whipple museum offered free admission and has a big collection of exhibits that detailed the history of science. Besides, it offered respite to the icy rain  and we stayed a good hour inside.
Whipple museum was our refuge from the biting cold
The urgent task of buying souvenirs became pressing near sunset . We ended up with some 'authentic' Cambridge Ts and caps for 40GBP !

Citi 7 bus took us to the train station and it felt as if the entire busload were offloaded there too. We even managed to catch the 5.21 pm train back to Liverpool London, a 2 hour exhausting ride south.

Cambridge today offered a teaser into what life would be like living among the  erudite . Had it not been for the rain and dank weather, it would be a great visit !

Saturday, January 28, 2012

18 Dec 2011 - London city

Spitalfields market

After the whirlwind day trips out of  London, I decided we needed train respite and spent a leisurely day in London city itself.

First, it was off to Spitalfields for breakfast, located off Liverpool station. Spitalfields market has been upgraded and seemed to have lost its former charm, though facilities are improved.  In fact, it was very neatly confined to a covered area we walked around the compound to verify that we were at the right place.

At Spitalfields, we had egg bacon in bap, a simple but surprising delightful breakfast at a corner café, Square Pie. Pat had his second English breakfast in this holiday.

There was nothing much I liked to see in Spitalfields though H loved the creative products by vendors. We ventured to Petticoat Lane, an open market similar to People's Park, selling very cheap clothing. There was nothing I fancied as well. We made our way towards the Thames; it was a very long walk in the bright and cold morning and the near zero temperature  almost knocked me off my senses.

London Tower - Jail and execution grounds for the high profile prisoners in ancient days

Eventually we reached The Tower of London and the festive mood of Sunday returned, encouraged by the enormous number of tourists  around the Tower of London. There was a last minute change of plans as we were appalled at the paying crowd, ushered by Beefeaters to tour  the Tower. Instead, we took in the sun and beautiful surroundings ( Tower and Tower Bridge ) in our leisurely pace, spending almost 4 hours in the vicinity and generally fooling around taking trick photos. I was thankful at not getting the prepaid railpass that would give a 2for1 discount to the Tower - the visit was virtually impossible with such a crowd.

After dropping by Katherine's docks and envying the toys of  the big boys, we crossed the Tower Bridge and marveled at its towering structure looming above us. Over at the wharves, we explored back alleys peppered with quaint buildings, refurbished warehouses  turned apartments and took in the city view from the  perspective of the wharves.

London Bridge
Now almost 3 pm, we hit east towards the 'real' London Bridge, which was feted in the nursery rhyme. It s beauty was nowhere like Tower Bridge and I suspect the author of 'London Bridge' must have mixed up with 'Tower Bridge'.

Fish stall at Borough's

A little way south of London Bridge, we reached Borough Market. It would have been closed on Sundays except that it was near Christmas and the stall owners were all out to grab a bit of the shopping pie before the biggest holiday of the year.  It was one hour towards closing but it did not prevent us from buying  fleur de sel , 2 pies , 2 cheesecakes and a big lunch for ourselves.  It seemed like we were all out to make the best use of the time there.
London retiring for the day

It was almost sundown by 4 pm, but we pushed our weary feet towards Monument, across the Thames, where we caught a tube back to Gloucester Rd.