Saturday, May 31, 2008

Change Of Guards

Our first day in London after returning from Spain was intentionally spent to observe the changing of guards at Buckingham Palace. We were reminded, before leaving home in Mid-May that if ever we were in London we should visit Buckingham Palace, especially during the changing of guards’ ceremony. We left the hotel at 10.00am and took the bus from the front of our hotel to go to St James Park. The guards on duty at the palace were mounted by the army from my country, a special arrangement and honor given to members of the Commonwealth Countries. We went specifically to observe this.

There was already a large crowd in front of the palace. There were people everywhere and all foreigners. Yes, the guards in front of the guard boxes at the palace were in the familiar ceremonial uniform of our army. There were, of course, policemen on foot and mounted on horses on the streets around and along the streets at the front of the palace grounds, and outside of the palace fence, controlling the crowd and also traffic. It was still early then for the changing of guards’ ceremony and we joined the crowd in posing and taking pictures to live up to the name of ‘tourists’ heh heh.

Signs that the ceremony was about to start came at about 11.00am when the first batch of horse riders and foot soldiers in full regalia accompanied by a band marching out from the side entrance of the palace, followed by a second batch a little while later, moving away to some distance from the palace area. Soon after that they marched back into the palace grounds and the change of guards’ ceremony started then. The band meanwhile played several contemporary songs and at the point just before the guards changed the British National anthem was played. The whole ceremony actually took about one hour and the crowd stayed on throughout the ceremony. Some of them commented that the guards do not look Caucasians and Sita proudly mentioned that they were from our country in the East!! I could not clearly see what went on as the crowd was really large and the ceremony took place over the wide area in front of the palace. I did not want to jostle for space amongst the crowd and stood some distance away. I had to strain and try to see through the crowd. Sita and Fahrul however did not move away from their position and managed to inch their way closer and closer to the fence. They managed to get some good pictures. Ram had found herself at the fence and stayed there all through out the ceremony.

Once the ceremony was over Fahrul and I had to rush to Kensington Park where the main mosque is located for us to perform our Friday obligations. Ram and Sita decided to go to Knightsbridge meanwhile, and pay a ‘courtesy call’ at Harrods ha ha!! Harrods is another tourist ‘must visit’ destination in London. We met them at Harrods later in the afternoon and then went to Queensway for a late lunch, or were it early dinner? at a ‘Nandos’ outlet which, we were assured, was suitable for us. The patrons here appear to be the younger crowd, a little noisy and some boisterous even. We had a seat at one corner, hence not bothered by the boisterous groups.

After dinner we decided to take a leisurely walk, as it was still light then, around the area and also find the apartment I used to live in some 25 years ago, located on Devonshire Terrace, close to Paddington Station. It was a pleasant walk as traffic was very low in that area then and it was also slowly getting dark. It was past 9.00pm then and time to return to our hotel. Najla was also getting restless and a little cranky.

The Devonshire Terrace Apartment

We checked out of our hotel on Saturday and returned to Tenby. There are no specific plans for the next two weeks we have left in UK but one thing for sure, we will want to see the countryside of Wales. Najla has to go back to her playschool in the mornings, having been away for more than a week. She even said that she wanted to go back to school. I think she missed her school friends already………

MKI Ramblings Unlimited,
Tenby, Pembrokeshire,

Thursday, May 29, 2008

One More Day In Barcelona, Final Day In España

It was another fine day, sunny and cool in Barcelona. We packed our stuff, checked out of the hotel, and headed for the Olympic Park not too far away from the hotel. The complex is in a large area that included an old fort upon a hill. The main stadium stood at midway up the hill, and there were also other buildings within the complex that were used for various games for the Olympics, I presume. As usual there were tourists all over the place. The open top bus also goes through the complex. There were ample space for parking and Fahrul parked close to the cable car bottom station.

We took the cable car to go up the hill, to the old fort and the garden surrounding it, covered by tall walls at the edge of the hill around the top. All along the walls and at the corners were spaces for guards and lookouts. The guns were mostly trained towards the sea. I guess in the old days this fort was the bastion of the city of Barcelona. From this vantage point we could see the whole of Barcelona, the port area and the sea beyond, the whole city and the surrounding countryside. There was a war or army museum within the building on top of this hill and there were also several old canons, German made Guns and Howitzers, displayed at vantage points around the walls. Why German made I wonder. I am not familiar with the history of the place but I guess the Germans had some role to play in the protection of the city at some point.

Najla apparently was having fun running around and playing. She kept saying she wants to play in the playground. We were not sure if there were any up here and true enough there was none after going around all the corners of the garden. She insisted on playing in the playground all the same while we tried to convince her that there was no children playground anywhere around. Anyway we continued viewing the site and later took the cable car back to the bottom. While in the cable car Najla pointed to a children playground below us but luckily there were no one anywhere around the playground. Even the roads nearby appeared deserted. We convinced her that the playground was closed and she reluctantly relented. Saved some time there!!

From the Olympic Complex we moved on to another part of the city, the Catalonia Plaza and stopped for a while to take more pictures. From here we went on our way back to Madrid as we have to catch a plane back to London the next morning. We took a route through the city of Zarragoza to Madrid, total traveling journey of five hours. As we have plenty of time we decided to stop over in Zarragoza which was about three hours away from barcelona, to perform our obligations to the Almighty and also for dinner.

The city of Zarragoza is not as big as Barcelona and not as busy and the buildings appear modern and comparatively new. The shape and structure of the main building in the city however appear to follow the traditional shapes and designs of old buildings in Spain, with domes and minarets typically adorned with the cross at the top. It does not look like a church and I suspect it is not meant to be one but could possibly be an administrative centre or for some official purpose. The other buildings within the city centre all appear to be modern.

Fahrul parked the car in an open parking lot and we walked around for a while before stopping at a suitable restaurant not too far away from the local mosque/religious centre. It rained for a while that evening while we were having dinner. When the rain stopped we proceeded to perform our obligations to the Almighty at the religious centre. It was then almost 11.00pm and almost time fro us to leave for Madrid and the airport.

We arrived at the airport at about 3.00am. Our flight to London was at 7.30 am and we had some time yet before checking in for our flight. We just rested and caught some sleep in the car, parked at the rental car return plaza, while waiting for time to check in. There was already a long queue when we went into the terminal building to check in at about 5.30am. After checking in we had a simple breakfast of bread and other food stuff we had brought along while on the road, did the necessary freshening up and went into the departure lounge. There was no hassle going through Immigration and security. Our flight was delayed by about half an hour but that was no big deal really. Farewell Madrid and good bye Spain…..

MKI Ramblings Unlimited,
London, England, UK

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Sunny Day And An Outing In Barcelona.

With a map of Barcelona city obtained from the hotel we took a bus to downtown in the late morning. Our hotel apparently was in the industrial area on the outskirts of the city. We had to change bus to go to the city but it was not a hassle at all as the bus was frequent enough. We spent sometime in Catalonia, in the city centre, which was overcrowded with people, majority tourists. The tourist bus, the open topped ones were also crowded. There was a long queue of people to board the buses. Fahrul went to get information from the tourist information centre, where there was also a long queue, and off we went to see some of the sites using the metro.

The park in the centre of Catalonia Plaza was full of people and so also the pedestrian mall leading from this plaza to the next main plaza. It was just like any other touristy city, with its grand hotels, designer shops and outlets, various kinds of restaurants including Mc Donalds, Pizza, Burger King and other fast food outlets.

At another location where the old temple stood, there were similar types of crowd. Groups led by a guide with a flag or number plate raised guiding the tourists on. The temple itself was being maintained and some refurbishment work going on. There were tower cranes and scaffoldings erected to facilitate work making the sight unsightly!! However that did not dampen the enthusiasm of the tourists present, clicking away on their cameras and videos.

We went to a mosque in the city, a building that was part of a terraced type of building block, performed our obligations to the Almighty, and then looked for a suitable restaurant nearby. One vegetarian outlet we found served some very interesting vegetarian food and sandwiches. One that attracted Ram and I was a combined platter of couscous (I stand corrected for spelling!!), rolled crepe with vegetable fillings, various beans, dhal and several types of dressings with various salad toppings. The platter was very nice and I liked the couscous especially and the rolled crepe with fillings had a unique after taste. For drinks we had a combined fresh juice of carrot, apple, ginger and milk that was truly refreshing. Ram and I thought of just sharing one tall glass but ended ordering another one not because we were still thirsty but for the unique taste the concoction gave to the palate. The concoction was called ‘orgasmic’ and it was that alright, ha ha.

We continued walking around the area after dinner and stopped at the Hard Rock Café where Sita bought some stuff one of her friends requested for. I took the opportunity to rest my leg at the front plaza (I do not have my walking stick with me remember?) after all the walking. We finally headed back to our hotel at about 11.00pm. We lost track of time as it was still light at 9.00pm!!

MKI Ramblings Unlimited,
Barcelona, Catalunya,

Monday, May 26, 2008

Last Day In Spain Yes? No?

Sunday and we were due to leave for Marrakech on an Easyjet flight scheduled at 6.30 pm. We decided to check out of the Apartment early, bought the day pass of €4.00 which was good for any of the metro or bus trips around the city, for the day, including to and fro the airport, went to the airport to store our luggage and returned to the city. Storage bins at the airport were only €7.00 each for the largest sized ones and we only needed two of them.

In the city we decided to check out areas we have not visited, bought lunch, took more pictures, and returned to the airport by ~ 4.00pm. On checking-in at the Easyjet counter we discovered that we needed a visa to go to Morocco. Jeezzz…., what a disappointment. It takes at least one day to get a visa and if we were to arrange for it we have to wait until Monday. One day gone and with travel day etc. left us with too short a time to spend in Marrakech. So we sat and reviewed our options. We have until early Thursday morning for our return flight to London from Madrid.

We considered various options and decided to rent a car and drive out of Madrid to other cities of Spain. We chose to go to Valencia, a 3 hours drive out of Madrid. We tried to get into the internet at the airport to try and find hotels in Valencia but could not find an internet outlet in the general public areas of the airport. The ones available were in the departure lounges after the security check-in. So we took the gamble and just drove to Valencia and try our luck at a hotel in Valencia or anywhere in the rest areas along the way. The highways we passed through appear to be a little narrow compared to other highways we go through in other countries. When overtaking heavy trucks and other wide vehicles the space for us seemed rather limited. There was not much side table to the highways too. They do have a lot of land and I wondered why they limit the size of their highways. There were no hotels en-route to Valencia but the first one we checked on arrival in Valencia had vacant rooms. It was then 2.00am and we just checked in as we needed the rest.

The next day was spent going around Valencia, but not before assuring a hotel room in Barcelona, our next destination. Fahrul went into one internet café and booked a hotel in Barcelona on-line. Apartment hotels apparently were more expensive in comparison.

The internet cafe was close to the town mosque, where we went to perform our daily obligations to the Almighty, and in the same location were a number of suitable restaurants for us. We had lunch in one of them, a Turkish restaurant with typical Turkish food that proved to be quite a change from the usual kebab and pizzas we were used to during our travels in Spain. The operator was a young Turk who could not speak English but understood what we wanted and was very accomodating. He described how he was going to prepare and serve us and we were happy to agree. It turned out to be a good lunch.

We went to Valencia beach area and then took the tram to the centre of the city. The original walled-city has turned modern but they have preserved some of the old buildings as heritage. New roads built are large three or four lanes ones but the city streets are very narrow with buildings very close to each other. The walled part was actually walls built on the river sides but the river had a long time dried up and parks and playground have taken over. Several bridges, built across the river for easy communications, were dedicated for pedestrians as well as motorized traffic. The main entrance to the city, a gate tower, looked very old. The metallic bars, bolts and nuts, holding the thick wooden bars and thick planks together on the gate, and the wood, still very strong, have wilted at the edges. A bell had also seen better days. This side of the ‘old’ river, beyond the main entrance gate must have been the original old part of the city, and the other side being the new and modernly designed part of the city.

We took the tram back to where we started earlier, close to the beach and where we had parked the car. It was 10pm then and time for us to leave for Barcelona, a 3 hours drive. There were at least seven tolls along the highway to Barcelona and we went through at least a dozen tunnels. Perhaps that was why there were so many tolls, to recoup investments in building the highway through the hills and mountains. It was raining heavily when we arrived in Barcelona and to locate the hotel took some time as the road system around the area were undergoing realignment with several new roads being built that the GPS guiding us was itself confused!! We found the hotel in the end and welcomed the opportunity to properly rest…..

MKI Ramblings Unlimited,
Barcelona, Catalunya,

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Sad Day – Dampener for Holiday Enjoyment

It was a sad day indeed. A Saturday and we had just left the apartment to go into the city by using the metro. Metro was crowded. I had my wallet picked from my pocket on exiting the metro train. I realized that the wallet was gone as I got out of the crowded train. I was sure I still had it with me while standing amongst the crowd in the train. I shouted “my wallet” several times and some people were pointing towards the train and speaking in Spanish which I do not understand. Fahrul and I rushed forward to see…… what? I wasn’t sure what to look for in the crisis of the moment but I tried to observe the behaviors of the people walking out and none showed any signs of guilt or awkwardness.
Several thoughts ran in my mind then. My wallet was definitely gone. My credit cards, identification card, driving license, etc., police report but how? I do not speak Spanish. Then Fahrul and I started looking into the rubbish bins around the station to see if it had been discarded, hoping to recover at least the wallet and documents. Gone, the wallet was gone……

We got directions to go to the police station to report the crime. Meanwhile Sita helped to call the credit card and bank numbers to stop charges on the cards. At the police station I was given a queue number and asked to call a certain number on one of the phones provided where I can report my case in English. The person on the other end of the line was very helpful and patient, prompting me with questions on what happened while at the same time I could hear him typing away on his keyboard, apparently typing my report. At the end of it he gave me a reference number to jot down and asked me to wait for my queue.

There were many people in the waiting room, all with the same predicament, victims of pick pockets. One lady from Ireland lost everything, passport, money, identification cards, credit cards, and she was scheduled to leave Madrid the next day, back to work. Another was luckier as she only lost a wallet containing only money she had ‘rationed’ for the day. All her cards, passport and other documents were kept separately. Sita asked why bother to report if only it was money she lost, she said that she wants to add to the statistics. How civic minded this lady from Belgium was. My queue number was 100 and after me more were coming in to make reports. It was then 2.30 pm, so this petty crime seems to be a daily occurrence in Madrid and the number of cases seems to be large!! And they say in the travel brochures that Spain is one of the safest countries in the world……. phhttttt…!!

One officer came and called out my number. I followed him into another room where there were several cubicles available for report making and confirmation. This officer took my report reference number, checked it out on his computer, printed it out and had an interpreter to read the report, written in Spanish, to me. I was allowed to make corrections of the facts but I only needed to correct the spellings. He then produced several copies of the report, asked me to sign each of them and he countersigned them as well and put the official chop on. He gave me a copy of the report and I was on my way out then. If they find my wallet they will contact me at the address given and on the telephone number given, he said. I do not put much hope in that.

It was reflection time for me while waiting for my queue number to be called. One of the safest countries in the world! hmmm indeed. Admitted, I was careless and I should have known better, having traveled extensively around the globe. I was too complacent. I was initially feeling annoyed with myself, peeved at having made the mistake but when I saw the big crowd of people with the same predicament as mine, some losing a lot more, one crying incessantly too, the negative feeling slowly went away. So, I lost my credit cards, my documents and some money, so what? It is not the end of things. Life goes on and I am on holiday. This misadventure should not dampen my holiday enjoyment. We were scheduled to move on to Marrakech the next day and I should leave the incident today behind me. Yes, I will have a lot of things to do when I return home, to obtain replacement id cards, driving license and all, but that’s part of life. For now, I look forward to Marrakech……

We had late lunch at one crowded vegetarian outlet and spent the rest of the day going round the city. Took some more pictures and observed the crowd as we went along. There was a large crowd everywhere we went. Perhaps being a Saturday and good weather at that the crowd chose to come out, just like us. After a while, Ram and I, feeling a little tired, went back to the apartment on our own while Fahrul, Sita and Najla continued going around the city.

No prize for guessing who this dancer is!!

MKI Ramblings Unlimited,
Old Town Apartments,
Madrid, España