Disclaimer: This post has the potential to incite wanderlust, spontaneity, or worse, vertiginous heights of jealousy. Should you have a strong aversion to bedazzling European scenery, culture or people, this post will likely deepen it and you are similarly excused. Otherwise proceed with caution.
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Like many casual travellers of non-European descent, I have always possessed a modicum of curiosity with respect to the continent widely crowned as the tourist mecca. Unfortunately, I also fell victim to age-old excuses of having neither the time nor the disposable resources to make the far-flung trek a reality. Despite the seed having been planted in me since my early twenties, it wasn’t until the looming 3-0 that I threw caution to the wind and decided it was high time to embark on my own “Eat, Pray, Love” journey – in Europe. The experience – majority of it solo – has enriched and reinvigorated me on so many levels, that to leave the positive energies unharnessed would be a shameful squander. So without further ado, I will endeavour to re-live the life-changing journey that has taught me as much about the world as it has revealed about myself.
Highlights of United Kingdom
My first stop in Europe (after a butt-numbing 24 hour flight with Qatar Airways through Doha) was the global metropolis of London. First impressions were less than perfect, however, with our stay at the Tune Hotel Westminster marred by the pigeonhole-sized room which left much to be desired (and at over £100/night it was an absolute heist!). Thankfully it was a short overnight stay, as we presented ourselves at Trafalgar London Reception Centre bright and early the following day. With the hardest part duly out of the way, I was ready to immerse myself in the British way of life.
Most tours would consider it a crime not to include a sojourn to Windsor Castle, the British royal residence situated in the county of Berkshire. Having hailed from a country where the only castles are of the sand kind, the Windsor Castle (GBP20 pp) oozed majestic extravagance befitting the longest continually occupied palace in all of Europe. Constructed in the 11th century as three wards (Lower, Middle and Upper) surrounding a central round fortification (Round Tower), the castle and its stately grounds have retained their significance over the years. The lavish State Apartments, miniature Doll’s House and the ceremonious change of guards at 11am were well worth the wait.
A short coach ride away lies the City of Bath in the county of Somerset, and it was here that we experienced the first taste of magnificent Georgian architecture and UK’s quaint, vibrant township. Bath offers a unique juxtaposition of the old and the new, and is home to the ancient Roman Baths, the Royal Crescent and Jane Austen romance (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion are set here, and the Austen family resided in Bath in the early 18th century).
Traversing back north through the Cotswold region offered its own cinematic charm, with its rolling hills and patchwork pastures accentuating the simplistic beauty of the English landscape.
The second day of the tour started in the City of Chester in the county of Cheshire. Renowned for its medieval black-and-white architecture, the Eastgate Clock (ranked as the second most photographed clock in UK after the Big Ben) and a circa 2 mile city wall representing one of the most well-preserved and complete city walls in the country. The full circuit city wall is highly recommended for its leisurely half-hour walk intermingled with spectacular sightseeing. The Rows along the main retail strip are unique to Britain, and consist of buildings with shops on the lower two storeys, with the shops on the ground floor oftentimes located at a basement level.
It would come as no surprise that the Lake District, with its picturesque lakes, forests and mountains (or fells as they are known locally), maintains its popularity as the English choice for summer vacations. An evocative nostalgia seems to permeate the poetic landscape, which provided the canvass for the likes of William Wordsworth. Given my weak stomach for the water I was undeniably anxious about the first boat trip, however the cruise along Windermere in the mid-morning mist turned out to be such a pleasantly serene ride that I resolved to sign up for all optional cruises available on tour (there would be 5 more).
It wasn’t until our crossing of the border and into the Scottish Highlands that the full majesty of the idyllic British countryside is unveiled before us.
For our venture into Edinburgh, the group stayed at Airth Castle overlooking the village of Airth in the Falkirk area of Scotland. Against a backdrop of ominous Scottish skies, the imposing castle took on an almost haunted look (in fact, the castle is haunted and famed for anecdotal phenomena including a spectre dog with a predilection for biting ankles and sightings of a nanny with young children). Having said this, I commend the Grill Room at Airth Castle for producing some of the most gastronomical British feasts and it was here that I indulged sumptuously in haloumi gnocchi, creamy seafood broth, beer glazed pork ribs, all amongst responsible doses of Scottish haggis.
As the capital of Scotland, our introduction to Edinburgh took us through the Georgian New Town, as well as Edinburgh Castle and the historic Old Town. A plethora of buskers and street performers lined the Royal Mile (Edinburgh’s version of Sydney’s Pitt Street Mall), showcasing everything from bagpipes, costume designs and William Wallace impersonations, to death-defying aerobatic stunts. The bustling backbone of Old Edinburgh is also conveniently decked out with souvenir stores selling Scottish exports including buttermilk biscuits, kilts and whiskey.
(Stayed tuned for Part II – Highlights of Scandinavia!)