In My Hands Today…

Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe – Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s first travel book, The Lost Continent, was unanimously acclaimed as one of the funniest books in years. In Neither Here nor There he brings his unique brand of humour to bear on Europe as he shoulders his backpack, keeps a tight hold on his wallet, and journeys from Hammerfest, the northernmost town on the continent, to Istanbul on the cusp of Asia. Fluent in, oh, at least one language, he retraces his travels as a student twenty years before.

Whether braving the homicidal motorist of Paris, being robbed by gypsies in Florence, attempting not to order tripe and eyeballs in a German restaurant, window-shopping in the sex shops of the Reeperbahn or disputing his hotel bill in Copenhagen, Bryson takes in the sights, dissects the culture and illuminates each place and person with his hilariously caustic observations. He even goes to Liechtenstein.

In My Hands Today…

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux

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In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Theroux recreates an epic journey he took thirty years ago, a giant loop by train (mostly) through Eastern Europe, Turkey, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, China, Japan, and Siberia.

In short, he traverses all of Asia top to bottom, and end to end. In the three decades since he first travelled this route, Asia has undergone phenomenal change. The Soviet Union has collapsed, China has risen, India booms, Burma slowly smothers, and Vietnam prospers despite the havoc unleashed upon it the last time Theroux passed through. He witnesses all this and so much more in a 25,000 mile journey, travelling as the locals do, by train, car, bus, and foot.

His odyssey takes him from Eastern Europe, still hungover from Communism, through tense but thriving Turkey, into the Caucasus, where Georgia limps back toward feudalism while its neighbour Azerbaijan revels in oil-driven capitalism. As he penetrates deeper into Asia’s heart, his encounters take on an otherworldly cast. The two chapters that follow show us Turkmenistan, a profoundly isolated society at the mercy of an almost comically egotistical dictator, and Uzbekistan, a ruthless authoritarian state. From there, he retraces his steps through India, Mayanmar, China, and Japan, providing his penetrating observations on the changes these countries have undergone.

Travel Bucket List – Europe: United Kingdom – 2

After I blogged about Part 1 of my UK bucket list, I spoke about it to GG. She immediately got excited and wanted to visit London immediately! Since S and to an extent BB had less interest in the historical sites we would want to see, she suggested that they stay back while we explore these places. I had to curb her enthusiasm a bit and promised her we would very soon go there. On to some more places in London and the UK that I would definitely want to visit.

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The Shard: In 2012, Italian architect Renzo Piano transformed London’s skyline with a strange but striking structure. Despite its glassy, futuristic look, the huge pyramid that is The Shard (now the capital’s tallest tower) was in fact influenced by the London of old. Piano took inspiration from the eighteenth-century spires he’d seen in artworks by Venetian landscape painter Canaletto. Reaching 244 metres from the ground, The Shard was built with everything in mind: offices, homes, hotels, bars, restaurants and, of course, the alluring viewing platform. From the highest point, the public is allowed access (floors 69-72) you get stunning 360° views of the city.

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The London Eye: The London Eye is a gigantic Ferris wheel located on the south bank of the River Thames. It was completed at the beginning of the 2000s, which is why it bears the nickname The Millennium Wheel. The wheel stands tall at 443 feet and has a diameter of 120 meters. A complete wheel turn takes about 30 minutes and the capsules provide visitors with a stunning 360° view of London. It’s recorded as the world’s tallest Ferris wheel and is a true beauty at night when it comes alive with bright neon colours. Tourists are entertained with a glass of royal champagne as they enjoy a sweet ride.

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Museums and Galleries: As I have mentioned previously, GG and me and to an extent BB are history buffs and so visits to the various museums and galleries in London like the British Museum, National Gallery, Tate Modern, Natural History Museum, Museum of London, Science Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Library will be a must. I understand quite a few of these are free and this will be a huge boon to tourists on a budget.

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Royal Observatory Greenwich: Visit the Royal Observatory Greenwich and stand on the world-famous Meridian Line with one foot in the west and one foot in the east. With your complimentary audio guide, learn about the discoveries of great scientists and inventors based at or associated with the Royal Observatory. Explore how great scientists first mapped the seas and the stars in Charles II’s magnificent Christopher Wren-designed Octagon Room – dating from 1675. Marvel at the Great Equatorial Telescope, the UK’s largest historic telescope which gave astronomers new views of the universe over 100 years ago. From the Royal Observatory, you will enjoy one of the most loved views of London across Greenwich Royal Park and the river Thames.

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Bath: One of the most beautiful cities in the whole of the UK, with a rich and varied history stretching back thousands of years, it’s easy to see why Bath welcomes hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. First established by the Romans who built temples around the hot springs here in 76BC, Bath has been welcoming weekenders for almost 2,000 years. This pretty spa town is oozing with history, from the Roman baths (of course) to its grand Georgian houses, parks and sweeping crescents, timeless attractions and Victorian gothic structures. Bath’s natural hot springs are what the city is most famous for, but it also has a fantastic cultural scene, with plenty of theatre, music, comedy, art and more.

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Stonehenge: One of the most important survivals of prehistoric England, Stonehenge consists of a group of huge rough-cut stones, some more than 20 feet high, arranged in two concentric circles. Located 10 miles north of Salisbury on Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge is Europe’s best-known prehistoric monument (the site is so popular that visitors need to purchase a timed ticket in advance to guarantee entry). Exhibitions at the excellent visitor centre set the stage for a visit, explaining through audio-visual experiences and more than 250 ancient objects how the megaliths were erected and telling about life when they were placed here, between 3000 and 1500 BC. After walking around the enormous stones, visit the authentic replicas of Neolithic Houses to see the tools and implements of everyday Neolithic life as volunteers demonstrate skills from 4,500 years ago.

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Manchester: S is a huge fan of the English Premier League and the team he supports is Manchester United. So for him, a trip to the industrial town is a must if we are in England. A visit to the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford where he can pay homage to his favourite players plus a visit to the National Football Museum and we should be done here.

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Loch Ness and Inverness: Nessie is Loch Ness’s oldest resident, first sighted back in the sixth century. Over the years, a host of hunters and hoaxers have followed in her wake, but we’ve yet to get a clear shot of the monster. If you fancy your luck, Jacobite offer a range of tours on the water, from sedate cruises to the high speed ‘Beastie Boats’. Even if Nessie is feeling shy during your visit, the loch (never pronounced ‘lock’ with a hard ‘k’ sound) remains a prime example of austere Scottish beauty. Gazing into that deep, murky water, it’s hard to shake the feeling that something is staring back.

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Stratford on Avon: This market town in England was the birthplace of Shakespeare and so the best things to do in Stratford-upon-Avon includes plenty of attractions related to its most famous inhabitant. Catch a show by the eminent Royal Shakespeare Company at one of its theatres or visit some of the well-preserved buildings whose very walls tell the story of the Bard’s life and death.

I am sure there are many attractions and places I have missed on this list. I am going to do some more research and see if I can come up with part 3. Are there any attractions or places you feel need to be included? Would love to hear from you.

Travel Bucket List: Europe – United Kingdom

Today’s travel bucket list is slightly farther than usual and unlike previous entries where I spoke about specific countries, this time it’s an entire continent!

GG and I are history buffs while BB also enjoys history, but not to the extent we do. So it’s only natural that Europe, which is the cradle of western civilization is definitely on my bucket list. I am going to break down Europe into countries and places I want to visit and will post periodically on this.

The starting point for our Europe adventures will most likely be England and more specifically London. I have family there and so this is the best way to combine meeting them and starting our journey of discovery.

The United Kingdom which is made up of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has been colonial masters of both India and Singapore and we have all learnt a fair bit of British history, especially the parts which intersect with our own country’s history. In addition, I love reading Victorian and Regency historicals and GG loves the history of the country, especially that of the various kings and queens. I am not going to bore you with the country’s recorded history which is long, varied and certainly interesting, but will go down straight to the sights I definitely want to visit.

Since we will be flying into London and keep the city as our base, I will start with the capital and then move outward to other places in the country. I would start with historic monuments and then move to other sights in the city. GG and BB are huge fans of Harry Potter and GG is a self-proclaimed Potterhead, so of course, a visit to the Warner Bros Studio and to Kings Cross Station is a must!

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Buckingham Palace: This is the London residence and administrative headquarters of the monarch of the United Kingdom. Located in the City of Westminster, the palace is often at the centre of state occasions and royal hospitality. It has been a focal point for the British people at times of national rejoicing and mourning. One thing not to miss is the Changing of the Guards Ceremony.

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Tower of London: Throughout its history, the Tower of London has served many purposes, including royal residence, barracks, armoury, prison and museum. The Tower of London is a 900-year-old castle and fortress in central London that is notable for housing the crown jewels and for holding many famous and infamous prisoners.

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Tower Bridge: Tower Bridge is a combined bascule and suspension bridge in London built between 1886 and 1894. The bridge crosses the River Thames close to the Tower of London and has become an iconic symbol of London. Because of this, Tower Bridge is sometimes confused with London Bridge, situated some 0.5 mi upstream.

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Hampton Court Palace: The magnificent and favourite royal residence of Henry VIII, the Hampton Court Palace bustles with the sights and sounds of the Base Court and the breath-taking grandeur of Henry’s State Rooms. Wander around the vast Tudor kitchens, stroll through over 60 acres of enchanting gardens, lose yourself in the famous maze and appreciate the beauty of one of the greatest palaces on earth. You can also creep along the Haunted Gallery and discover the Baroque Palace, full of intrigue and gossip from the Stuart and Georgian era.

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St. Paul’s Cathedral: St Paul’s, with its world-famous dome, is an iconic feature of the London skyline. It is the seat of the Bishop of London and the mother church of the Diocese of London and is 1,400 years old. Step inside and you can enjoy the Cathedral’s awe-inspiring interior. You can also venture down to the crypt and discover the tombs and memorials of some of the nation’s greatest heroes such as Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. You can also try out the acoustic quirks of the Whispering Gallery and continue on to the Golden Gallery to enjoy breathtaking panoramic views across London.

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Big Ben: Technically, Big Ben is the name given to the massive bell inside the clock tower at the houses of parliament and Elizabeth Tower, which weighs more than 13 tons (13,760 kg). The clock tower looks spectacular at night when the four clock faces are illuminated. Unfortunately, only UK residents can visit the inside of the clock by writing into their Member of Parliament. Foreign visitors can view it from outside and tour the houses of the Parliament.

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Houses of Parliament: The Palace of Westminster is the meeting place of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two houses of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Most of this iconic building was built in the mid-19th century following a devastating fire in 1834. Westminster Hall survived the fire and dates from 1097. Visitors can book tours through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and are welcome to watch debates and committees when the Houses are sitting.

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Kensington Palace: Kensington Palace is a working Royal residence. Of great historical importance, Kensington Palace was the favourite residence of successive sovereigns until 1760. It was also the birthplace and childhood home of Queen Victoria. Experience life as an 18th-century royal courtier whilst making your way through the magnificent King’s and Queen’s State Apartments adorned with remarkable paintings from the Royal Collection.

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10 Downing Street: 10 Downing Street is home to the British Prime Minister. Look through the gates from Whitehall, and see the famous 10 Downing Street door which can only be opened from the inside. There is no access to the house or street for the general public, and it is not possible to do a 10 Downing Street tour. You can’t visit 10 Downing Street; but you can still head to 10 Adam Street, only 800 metres (2,624 ft) away, where you’ll find a very similar door, now a hotspot for tourists wanting to take a souvenir photo.

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Warner Bros. Studio The Making of Harry Potter: This is something we all are really looking forward to. This studio tour provides an amazing opportunity to explore the magic of the Harry Potter franchise. The unique walking tour will take you behind-the-scenes and showcases a huge array of beautiful sets, costumes and props as well as reveal some closely guarded secrets, including facts about the special effects and animatronics that made these films so hugely popular all over the world. You can also step inside and discover the actual Great Hall and explore Dumbledore’s office and discover never-before-seen treasures. Another must-see attraction in the studio is the famous cobbles of Diagon Alley, featuring the shop fronts of Ollivanders wand shop, Flourish and Blotts, the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Gringotts Wizarding Bank and Eeylops Owl Emporium and also see iconic props from the films, including Harry’s Nimbus 2000 and Hagrid’s motorcycle. You can also learn how creatures were brought to life with green screen effects, animatronics and life-sized models. Other sets available include the Gryffindor common room, the boys’ dormitory, Hagrid’s hut, Potion’s classroom and Professor Umbridge’s office at the Ministry of Magic.

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Kings Cross Station: The iconic station where students to Hogwarts are sent off. Students to Hogwarts enter platform 93/4 by dashing through a brick wall between platforms 9 and 10. Meanwhile, in the real King’s Cross, platforms 9 and 10 are separated by tracks, but you can find a platform 9¾ on the wall in the station concourse. There’s a luggage trolley embedded in the wall, and you can pretend you are off to start on your magical Hogwarts journey.

This post is becoming very long and I am going to stop now and do the rest of London plus outside of London very soon. And the way I am adding attractions, it looks like we will need a couple of weeks just in London and then another few weeks just for the UK! How on earth am I going to do a full Europe holiday in just a month or so? Watch this space! And