Ed-din-brah – city of stunning scales

We reached Edinburgh just after noon for the last leg of our holiday, after spending a week in London and a few days in Lake District, England. Over the first evening, the Scottish capital revealed why it is different.

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The Vertical Scale:
Just the fifteen minute walk to our hotel (which should have been only five minutes) was a preview: We followed the map precisely, we reached our destination Cowgate street, but… it is below us!

Edinburgh is a city built, or rather evolved, over multiple levels, and their maps do take this into account, showing a different colour for streets at various levels (not all maps, certainly not Google’s which we had). And it is not uncommon to find alleys reached by climbing 20 steps up or down either side of the same street. IMG_20150515_200723
It could not have been otherwise for two reasons: 1. The city has been there for thousand years or so and 2. People in Edinburgh never brought down their old houses / shops when building new ones, or they seldom built new ones. The famous Princes Gardens is at so many levels, we soon started believing that every garden in the city is part of Princes Gardens!

Which brings us to the Time Scale:
Edinburgh basically has two parts – the Old Town and the New Town. The difference? New Town is all that was built after 1765! Yes you read it right! This is how the city measures time. The New Town was built between 1765 and 1850. So what was built after 1850? We could not find many ‘proper’ buildings like we see in cities, may be the Holiday Inn hotel where we stayed, probably the reason why it was not that pricey! And if you are not convinced that Edinburgh still lives in the eighteenth century, there is a daily one o’clock gunshot fired from the Castle, that triggers the dropping of a white ball on top of a tall monument (most of their buildings are monuments, anyway) on the hill opposite, to serve as a signal for ships to sync their clocks. After all, those days, without precise time measurement, there was no distance measurement or navigation. And there is the Balmoral hotel, whose clock is always 2 minutes fast, to save passengers from missing their train (or stage coach?!) The clock is set to correct time for the New Year Eve, and then wound forward as soon as the year has begun.

The Distance Scale
The most famous part of Edinburgh, the one which you would not miss if you had just half a day in Edinburgh, is the Royal Mile. True to its name, it is almost precisely one mile long, the stretch of streets from the Castle to the Holyrood Hill. When we were preparing for the trip, we had read all about this. But surprise! The rest of Edinburgh is only a mile around the Royal Mile! We realized this, when we went up the Castle and saw very little on 270 degrees around, except towards the east and the north. And this was confirmed when we travelled to the airport (by tram!) and on the journey lasting 35 minutes and some 10 stations, after the third station it was all fields and sheep. My initial happiness at finding a bargain price for a hotel on the Royal Mile dissipated! The whole city is on the Royal Mile!

What is there to see or do in Ed-din-brah (as our guide on the Loch Ness tour calls it)?
IMG_20150514_110934Edinburgh Castle
For me at least, this was the highlight of the entire Britain trip. It is huge and ancient, and had so much to see inside, such as the royal rooms, great hall, prisons, battery of guns,… The meeting with Her Grace Mary, Queen of the Scots, was thrilling (The queen lived in the sixteenth century and was the most beloved Scottish character next to William ‘braveheart’ Wallace. The role was enacted by a superb actress taking many of us by surprise. She taught us the correct way of addressing a queen and also taught some dance steps.

The Scott Monument.

Waverly train station. The only station in the world named after a novel. Scots are at least as romantic as the Irish, if not worse! The station (no, actually the novel; the station is only 169 years old 😉 recently celebrated its 200th anniversary and is now decked up with quotes from Waverly novels – these are by Sir Walter Scott, please Google him – a sample:

“In literature, as in love, courage is half the battle”

“Scarce one person out of twenty marries his first love, and scarce one out of twenty of the remainder has cause to rejoice at having done so”

The National Museum of Scotland. Beautifully presented and not as imoosing as the British one in London.

Holyrood Hill, and the various monuments and strange structures there.

St Giles Cathedral, not big enough to merit the name but beautiful nevertheless.

Princes Gardens. Superbly manicured lush grass and flowers.

The Scott Monument. Imposing structure near Princes Gardens.

PS: we asked the hotel staff for a weighing scale for our bags, they charge £1 per bag 😉

Travel, stay, visa

Flight bookings were easy, I just spent a month looking at selected websites comparing the rates. Rates are supposed to start moderately about six months before the journey, reach a trough in the fifth month or so and then slowly increase. Yes it is as easy as playing the stock market!

Finally I used makemytrip.com to book Chennai – London via Abu Dhabi  and Edinburgh – Chennai via London Abu Dhabi and Mumbai on Etihad + Virgin. Got a pretty good price, at least 20% less than directly booking on a single airline, but the catch is it is not cancelable. As for stay, I decided to go for Wellness Home, a bed and breakfast inn at Chiswick outside central London, after considerable time researching and rejecting costlier options in the city. The difficulty was that not many hotels or b&b’s have large enough rooms to accommodate 2+2 persons. This B&B does not accept credit card payment so I had to pay thru PayPal. For Edinburgh and Windermere, I booked thru bookings.com. In Edinburgh I have chosen Holiday Inn Express on Royal Mile. Bit expensive but I liked the address. Windermere was a bit difficult, not many options that I liked, but finally chose Glenburn hotel.

I also wanted to book the rail tickets for London to Windermere and on to Edinburgh. I was told that even rail tickets vary in price depending on when you book. I wanted to make use of Family and Friends rail card. This is a discount card offering 30% discount on all rail bookings for four persons for one full year. For its price, it will redeem itself in just one journey for us, and all local travel would be cheaper. But buying it was a problem, they mail it only to addresses inside UK and I need the card when I book the journey to avail the discount. I asked my London hotelier- actually they are running the place out of their large home – if he can receive it on my behalf and forward it. He readily agreed. But later I have learnt that I only need the card when I actually travel, and not when I book, though we need to declare the use of the card when booking. A bit strange, this… However till now I haven’t been able to book the rail tickets as the website did not accept my credit card. Even phone booking did not work, though my credit card company insists the card should work. Indeed I don’t see anything wrong with the card as bookings.com accepted it.

An UK general one time visa costs about Rs. 8000 and takes two to three weeks to get, so normally we can get it in the last month before the travel. But we wanted to close this out ASAP and be relieved in the last month. The online form is twelve pages long, and we need to repeat so much of the information in each family member’s separate form. They should have a family application form, really. Anyway, over a few days of hard labor, we obtained appointment for all four of us for one fine day couple of weeks back. What are we supposed yo submit along with the application? The British showed their true colors here, just specifying only: ‘a valid passport and proof that you are eligible and can support yourself during the visit’ and giving themselves all the room to reject an application. This is one time when I felt a travel agent would have helped.

We went to the visa office full of apprehension and armed with all originals and copies of every significant piece of paper we could lay our hands on: property documents, bank statements, employer letter, school bona fide letter, birth and marriage certificates (left behind my mark sheets to not give them more chance of rejection). But… what happened there was completely unexpected… and shocking.

The “clerks” (a term and occupation which seems to be Britain’s biggest contribution to india) at the counter simply collected the signed application and what ever we wanted to hand over, not offering a single comment whether the papers are in order, or if something is missing. They just dumped each set of papers in a gunny bag and sealed it for transfer to the British High Commission, which actually processes them. Also we have to pay a further fee of Rs. 450 per application if we want to receive SMS status update and courier delivery of the passport and visa. In two weeks I have received one SMS and no visa yet.

Planning for London

So here we are, having more or less decided on England as the next holiday location. But where in England? Of course London… and where else? And how long?

Obviously the first thought was to take a package tour with Thomas Cook or some other operator. But none of their packages really was like what I had in mind; more over, after seeing Paris on our own (out of necessity, because I stayed there three months on work) we knew that the planning and preparation phase is a journey in itself and didn’t want to miss it. So we decided to make our own plan.

So what did we have in our mind? (I don’t know if there is such a thing as a collective mind; so by default, it’s my mind) Total duration was decided by practical considerations as about two weeks, of which a week or so in London plus some day trips from London. I always had a fascination for Scotland (which along with NZ is supposed to be the best honeymoon location in the world) and also wanted some driving/trekking possibility in a English village setting. To get closer to a better plan, we needed to research.

So we started to. Internet is full of travel sites and forums. Tripadvisor was my favorite. With some searches and couple of questions, I got these possibilities for the English village: Wales, Cotswolds (the region west of London encompassing Oxford etc) or Lake District in north England. In Scotland we had to choose either Edinburgh or Glasgow as the base. We settled on Lake District because of two reasons: it’s on the rail route London-Edinburgh, and i liked the name Windermere! One dictum here – never sleep at more than two places in any given week – guided our decision to limit ourselves to just three hangouts.

By now the favorites list on my mobile was like one hundred links. I was also using the app Pocket, a kind of link saver. Each of us made up our own lists of must-sees and must-dos, and shared them via Pocket. Three teams at work here: myself, the wife, and the daughter-son combo when they weren’t fighting.

Next I got some personal tips from my current CTO Andy. I was under the impression he is an Englishman; but the moment I sought him out, he advised me to be careful and remember that he is a Scotsman! And this conversation happened a week before the Scottish Referendum! So I could see his point.

Anyways he was delighted to spend an hour with me on the places to visit; it turned out Bath is where he studied, and he insisted I must not skip this place at any cost; of course I can’t. And he showed me detailed routes for covering the Scottish Highlands.

Now to draw up a budget, if only to know whether we can afford it without feeling too guilty.

Forums weren’t much helpful here, all I got was, it costs as much as I wanted to spend. Helpful indeed. So I sought out another colleague Muthu, who had spent two years in England and traveled a bit on his own too. In typical IT fashion we drew up a list parametrized on rates per head per day for stay, food and travel, exchange rate etc. I had a figure that can’t go wrong by more than twenty percent.

Next step, more refinement of the plan,  may be get some company, and getting into action. In the next post which might take some time coming. Meanwhile check out my daughter’s blog here: https://meratravelblog.wordpress.com