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Monday, April 9, 2018

Holland

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Cruising to Amsterdam ---- (Part 1)

Long time back I had travelled to Bangladesh by road. On the last phase of the journey, the bus moved on to a huge barge to be ferried across the mighty sea like river Padma for the final road to Dhaka. I recall the moment exhilaratingly exciting as that trip was my first brush with sailing. I could not rid my mind of the thrill of sailing, and finally the opportunity came when we planned our journey from England to Europe. We booked a luxury cruise with Stena Lines from Harwich port in England to Hook of Holland in Netherlands. Harwich is a seventeenth century maritime town in Essex. Greater Anglia rail runs around three dozen trains daily from Liverpool Street station in London, with journey time to Harwich of about two hours. We left for Harwich after lunch at my wife’s aunt’s house in Belmont, a tranquil little suburb south of London.  Belmont station is very close from their house, but it is a lonely, cute little station away from the main line. For more options, we were seen off at Sutton station by my wife’s uncle. We got down at Blackfriars station and from there took an underground Circle Line to Liverpool street station. There were two changeovers for the train to Harwich - Colchester and Manning tree.Manningtree is a small changeover station for Harwich. For convenience of Harwich passengers, a smaller train waits at platform 1. Passengers simply have to take a lift to crossover. The train to Harwich was virtually empty save a few local residents and a fewer tourists. The local residents were mostly family members and acquaintances travelling to their home town, and scattered in groups in the carriages. They were all clamorous, chatting, talking and laughing aloud, very similar to train journeys in India. And a very pleasant break from the scenes encountered in neighboring London and its suburbs.  We had tickets upto Harwich Town, but when we asked a co-passenger with the hotel address they asked us to get down at Dovercourt station which is between Harwich International and Harwich Town. We had to simply walk down to our hotel.  The Bottle Kiln is a Wetherspoon hotel cum pub. A very comfortable 4 star hotel with a lively pub at the ground floor. The pub offers real ales, a range of craft beers and food items, and remains open till late in the night. We had booked the hotel for one night so that we could report for the cruise next morning. We spent the evening strolling on the beautiful promenade along the Harwich beach, from where we could also view the old Lighthouse. The beach is a couple of minutes walk from our hotel. Next morning we hired a cab to take us to Harwich International Dockyard. It is like an airport where we had to go through the immigration formalities, and finally taken in a bus for boarding the cruise ship. As I stepped down from the bus at the car deck, I was awestruck like any first timer. The fact is I never knew how a luxury liner looks like. Like a multistoried hotel there are thirteen decks. Decks 9 to 11 are facilities and passenger decks. We took a lift to Deck 9, where like any village boy I gaped at the restaurants, bars, coffee bar, duty free Stena shopping centre, the Stena Plus lounge and other facilities. It was a great fun roaming around on glitzy Deck 9, stopping to have a sumptuous lunch in one of the restaurants and then finally basking for a while on the sun deck with beer before retiring for relaxing in our cabin. Our cabin was on Deck 10- like any star hotel room on land. Besides comfortable beds, en suite, a table fridge stuffed with wines, beers, and electric kettle for tea or coffee, cheese, ham, bread, biscuits, a TV and more to make sailing a luxurious lifetime experience. Lying on the bed one can have a lovely view of the North Sea through large round glass window in the cabin. While inside one has a feeling that the ship is stationery. We experienced the movement when we walked out to the sun deck. The sun deck is equipped with a bar and an enclosed football ground.There was a group of school children who were enjoying a game of football, and it was a great fun watching the ball strike the enclosure net and bounce back. The ship was moving at around its specified 20 knots, which if converted to land speed comes around 40 to 45 miles per hour. It was delightful to watch the long chain of white froth as the giant liner lurched forward. Sailing to Hook of Holland (Hoek Van Holland) takes roughly seven hours. At Hook of Holland the bus stop is located right outside the exit gate. As our booking was upto Amsterdam, the bus connected us to Schiedam Central rail station, where we boarded a train to Amsterdam Central. And after a couple of hours, we were at Amsterdam. I have been here once before, and I liked the vibrant nature of the metropolis. Outside the station is a sprawling jazzy square with canals, tram stops, metro station, an old building with dome like structure and a large clock dominating the place with its beautiful appearance. While my wife waited outside the metro entrance, I crossed the tram lines to purchase 48 hours GVB tickets which can be used for endless rides in trams, buses, metros, ferries in Amsterdam. We took the Line 51 metro and got off at Kronenburg. It is an overground station on Amstelveen line, where right across was our hotel ibis. There are many places of interest in Amsterdam but we chose to restrict our visits to houses of some notable residents of the city, like Rembrandt and Anne Frank (more in the next part). An interesting fact about this tiny Kronenburg station, from where we commuted to the city centre, is that both metro and tram operates from the same station, same platform. As trams are also high speed there, we opted for trams so that way we could see the city properly. Tram no.5 runs from Kronenburg to Amsterdam Central, which is located in the heart of the city centre.  There we took a ride in Amsterdam’s canals.And as we sailed history unfolded. The canal district is under UNESCO World Heritage site, as the canal network is as old as the 17th century buildings lining up on either side of the canals.Also known as Grachtenyondel in Dutch,the district crossed 400 years in 2013. The most remarkable were the three buildings named Dancing Houses, tall and tilted historical structures resembling a dancing posture. All these canal houses(Grachtenhuizen) are located at Damrak.After a day's outing, I remember embroiled in a funny tiff with the tram driver of tram no.5 while boarding the tram at Central. In order to check whether the tram goes to Kronenburg, I went upto the driver and asked him. ‘Koenenburrr!–No’ was the reply in heavy accent. When I insisted that I had come by the same tram no., the driver growled at me saying that he has been driving since last 40 years and never heard about the place. A lady boarding the tram came to our rescue and finally we boarded that tram and got down at KronenburgBut there is no denying of the fact that the city's public transport system, including tram service, is excellent. Riding a tram through the heart of the city unfolds a vista of a vibrant and colourful Amsterdam. The Dam square, the sixteenth and seventeenth century buildings of typical Dutch architecture housing offices, hotels, restaurants, pubs, the world famous red light district offering voyeuristic views through glass windows(the only place on earth where shows are legal),numerous bridges criss crossing the canals - all deftly and beautifully integrated to give the city a unique character and charm.


View of canal from a bridge at Amsterdam

Promenade at Harwich Town

Harwich International Dockyard Terminal

Inside Stena Lines Cabin

Stena Lines Cabin

View of North Sea from Stena Lines Deck


A Football game on Stena Lines Cruise Ship

A Pub in Stena Lines

A Pub in Stena Lines


Sun Deck on Stena Lines



Kronenburg metro and tram station at Amsterdam South

Amsterdam

Amsterdam

View of  the old city of Amsterdam from boat 


Amsterdam Canal

Historical Magere Brug (Skinny Bridge- a draw bridge over the river Amstel from where the name Amsterdam was derived), which opens to let ships and boats to pass through. A local legend says that the wooden bridge was constructed at the behest of two skinny sisters who lived on either side of the river and wanted to visit each other.The original bridge was so narrow that it was difficult for two persons to cross each other. It was widened in 1870.


Amsterdam Canal

View of Dancing House from Amsterdam Canal

17th century Dancing House


Canal district at Amserdam



Waiting for Tram at Amsterdam


Canal and Bridge


Canal 

A close view of one of the old buildings lining the canal  (built in 1695) and now housing a cafe at the ground level.The age of this house is almost same as the age of my city Calcutta which was founded by Job Charnock of Britain in 1690.
Old houses lining up on the waterway of Amsterdam


Boat ride on Amsterdam Canal

Pic Courtesy : Arundhati Sengupta






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Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Caledonian Experience--- 2

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Scottish Highlands, Castles & Whisky




As our guide drove towards the city of Stirling, he told us about Scottish Highlands-Lowlands divide and their history . We approached Stirling Castle through the wynds of the old town. The attractive 14th century castle atop an intrusive crag appeared to be sheltering and dominating the old town with ancient  buildings and cobbled streets. It was windy and drizzling. Inside there were the wonderfully preserved Great Hall and Great Kitchen of the Royal Palace built by King James V. Mary, Queen of Scots, is among the many Kings and Queens of Scotland who have been crowned as well as lived there. Even the legendary hero of the folklore King Arthur’s name is linked. Although a 5th century character, King Arthur’s Round Table was discovered on the castle ground by archaeologists. Despite the naturally strong and defensive position of the castle, history recorded eight sieges. Only Romans bypassed Stirling. Instead, they built a fort at Doune. Through a haze of mist and drizzles the view from top of the fort area was amazing. The Loch, the Highlands were all visible through a veil of fine water droplets. Next, the bus moved down the winding hill roads to Doune Castle lying in ruins far below the crag where Stirling Castle stands. From the 13th century castle we started our journey to Loch Lomond. On our way we stopped for lunch at Drymen, a cute little Scottish village. The village square where we stopped, exudes an old charm and has only one proper restaurant and pub. The shop located on the other side of the square happened to be a general store with very little choice for eatable items. We opted for the restaurant Clachan Inn. Little did we know that this cosy restaurant is also steeped in history like the village. When we came out after savouring a delectable lunch and wine we noticed an inscription showing ‘Licensed 1734’. Another surprising discovery in store for us was that Rob Roy way started from the very doorstep of this pub ,which happens to be the oldest Ale House in that region. Rob Roy is a legendary outlaw turned folklore hero of Scottish Highlands. The wilderness of Scotland surfaced as we approached Loch Lomond. Being the largest freshwater Loch, about 40 km long and housing 30 islands, it has all the nature’s charms one is looking for. Surrounded by mountains, glens, woodlands and other smaller lochs, and small water ducks swarming the shores with their entire family the area presented a picturesque view of wild Scotland. We wandered in the wilderness for about an hour before proceeding to the last lap of our journey to my dream destination – Scotch Whisky Distillery. Glengoyne is a beautiful, traditional distillery. Seeing the entire process and tasting a dram of finest single malt taken right from an exclusive single cask was a lifetime cherished experience for a whisky lover like me. . On our return to Edinburgh, the bus dropped us at Waverley station. It was around 7, quite an early in the evening there. Full daylight despite cloudy sky and intermittent drizzles. In eastern part of India where we live, this time of the day is well into night sky. A long wait till almost midnight before our train departs for London. So before moving down the ramp from Waverley bridge into the station complex we decided to idle away with some refreshment and Scottish beer in a huge café on the bridge.The café throbbed with people, most of them in groups – eating,drinking,chatting,debating and laughing loudly thus creating a perfect ‘Adda’ atmosphere, which is normally seen in Coffee Houses all over India. Added to it the hustle bustle of trams and buses over Waverley Bridge, Edinburgh castle dominating the skyline, the old and new architectural splendours around the station, provided an unforgettable moment over a glass of beer.  Dusk descended,  we  moved down to the station. Wait till midnight was still quite long. But when we entered the station’s waiting area we were surprised to find that the place was equally pulsating. The 19th century station had all provisions like eatery, a pub  where we spent sometime when my wife’s mobile had drained out totally and had to be charged , and a grand piano at the centre of the seating area. A young girl was playing some lovely tunes when we entered. The bold painting on the floor ‘PLAY ME’ was a welcome invite for any visitor desirous of trying his/her hands on the piano. Although a basic learner I was also tempted to go up and play a Rabindra Sangeet ‘Anando Loke’. My wife took a video on her mobile and shared it on her Facebook.It was a thrill to hear someone come and play ‘Auld Lang Sye’. Coincidentally, Tagore composed ‘Purano sei diner kotha’ based on this tune. It is said that the early nineteenth century Scottish poet Robert Burns who penned ‘Auld Lang Sye’ inspired Tagore. Finally we also enjoyed watching a couple perform ballroom  dance to some lilting melodies played by an experienced pianist. Finally the platform was announced for the 11.40 CALEDONIAN SLEEPER. It was on the  platform nearest to the station waiting hall. The pretty looking deep blue train exuded the exclusivity of a royal look. It is difficult to get reservation on this train. It is only for our dear friend Kanchan Dasgupta who works and lives in London that taking a ride in one of Scotland’s Royal train was made possible. He not only suggested but also got the reservation done much before we landed in UK. We were booked in Chair Car. Fortunately for us they had some problem with the AC in the Chair Car on that day. So they upgraded and shifted us to first class sleeper. It was indeed a dream trip in 2-berth sleeper coupe.Comfortable well laid out bed,a beautiful take away journal 'Nocturne',wake up call,Scottish breakfast and above all the hospitality and royal treat from the staff made the journey unforgettable. Caledonian Sleeper terminates at London's Euston station at 7 in the morning.


CALEDONIAN SLEEPER



Outside Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle



Interior of Stirling Castle

Interior of Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle


Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle

Stirling Castle



Stirling Castle

Doune Castle

The 18th century Clachan Inn Doorway 

The town where Clachan Inn is located

Inside Clachan Restaurant


Wild Ducks at Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond


Glengoyne Distillery founded in 1833

Distillation Process

Scotland has abundant water resources in the form of rivers,loches,streams. Since the Scottish water is soft with significantly lower mineral and calcium contents, and has high peat content due to water running through natural peat bogs the flavour of whisky produced has earned the fame of Scotch Whisky. Distilleries are located near the water resources running over peat bogs.Single malt and single grain are the two types of Scotch Whisky produced. Single malt is produced by malted barley and water in a single distillery,and contains no other cereals.Rich complex flavour is created by maturing in sherry and bourbon casks. It is then aged in oak casks. The depth and intensity of whisky is said to increase each year of its storage in a cask. 

Whiskies matured in different casks show how the colour deepens with ageing.

Casks

Duty Free Warehouse

Finished Bottles

Whiskies aged for 35 years

The Distillery premises

Glengoyne Distillery






Wetherspoon's pub and cafe on the bridge over Edinburgh Waverley station


Caledonian Sleeper


Inside the coupe

Sleeper coach
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Photographs : Arundhati Sengupta


Plan your trip to Scotland

If you are planning a short trip for a day or two from London, the most recommended option is by train. There are some comfortable, high speed trains run by Virgin East Coast. These trains start from Kings Cross station in Central London and takes around four and a half hour to reach Edinburgh. Since demand is pretty high for these trains, it is suggested to book tickets in advance, which can be done online from any part of the globe through the site www.thetrainline.com. The most comfortable return journey from Edinburgh to London is the famed Caledonian Sleeper which departs at midnight from Edinburgh and reaches London early in the morning.
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