Sunday, September 23, 2012

I see London...

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Last week we journeyed to London.  I was really excited about this trip because it was one of the first ones I started planning and really being able to envision when my husband gave me Rick Steves' Best of Europe.  Since my husband already had a business trip to Oxford that week it made perfect sense to combine it with our trip to London.

I arrived on Thursday to spend some time sightseeing on my own because hubby was not finished until Friday.  When I got off the plane I was nearly in (happy) tears to see so much English and no other language on the signs (even Ireland has Gaelic on the signs, too).  During my trip into the city on the tube my brain was in overload because there was so much to read and I could read it.  I had hoped to have more time that afternoon evening, but I didn't realize how long it would take to get to the hostel and checked in.  By the time I was settled I just decided to head up to Picadilly Square and walk around until I found dinner.  I progressed from Picadilly to Leicester and looked at a lot of menus, but didn't see anything that really caught my eye.  I finally found a Mexican restaurant in Leicester Square that turned out pretty well.  I had to make a special request to get really spicy enchiladas but they were pretty good.  (It's hard to really compare the "Mexican" food in Europe to real, made-by-Mexican-people food in the States.)  After dinner I just made my way back to the hostel and ending up meeting a few Canadians and having some drinks with them in the bar.  It was a great start to the trip.

In the morning I decided to see what I could do about seeing the Changing of the Guard.  I arrived at Buckingham Palace around 9:45--much earlier than the recommended 10:30 for an 11:00 changing.  I took some pictures and just sort of hung out before deciding on what I thought would be a good spot.  I was in place by 10:15.  Right next to the main gate.  A Swiss woman asked if this was a good spot and I told her I hoped so and she hung out with me there the rest of the time.  It did turn out to be good and we got great photos and videos.  I wouldn't say it's a must-do for everyone because I know I enjoyed more than the average person, but it sure was a surprise to hear the band playing Bailamos and Livin' La Vida Loca.  There's no one spot where you can see everything, but we did pretty well and I'd recommend it.  After it was all over we said goodbye to each other and I headed for Westminster.  I had been hoping to attend church on Sunday at the Abbey, but there was only one special service for the anniversary of the Battle of Britain and you needed tickets.  I had just enough time to make the 12:30 communion service though if I hurried.  When I got close I got one of those "I'm really in London" views--Big Ben, parliament, the Churchill statue, tons of red phone booths and Westminster.  I ended up being a tad late for the service because I couldn't figure out which door service-goers could use.  It was nice though since I understood everything--up until the priest told us all to pray the Our Father in our own language.  The woman next to me said it in some language I'd never heard so I asked her about it as we were leaving. 
It was Swahili, her second language.  We ended up chatting for a bit and I told her where I was from and why I had come that day instead of Sunday.  She didn't know about the service Sunday and we ended up talking a bit about the wars and I shared the appreciation I'd grown to have in the last several months for what happened during that time.  She shared how no one studied 20th century history when she was in school (late 40s) because it was all too painful to talk about and that most of her teachers were all single because they had lost their husbands or fiances in the war--a whole generation of widows.  I told her I was the first to admit that most Americans didn't have a clue when it came to understanding what those wars meant for England the rest of Europe.  It was quite nice speaking with her.

After finishing up at the Abbey, I took the tube to Green Park to meet up with a friend I hadn't seen since high school.  She'd invited me to high tea so I met her (and her ~3.5 month old  son) for a nice walk around the city and then to the Connaught Hotel for tea.  This was my first experience with having afternoon tea since the Felicity in Williamsburg tour I'd taken 15 years ago.  We had some really great tasting (and looking) food and the best part is that it is all-you-can-eat--without the tacky plastic banner sign :-)  After tea we walked a bit more so she could show me the way to Harrods' before parting ways.  It was so good to see her and catch up.  After exploring Harrods' just to say I'd been, I made my way back to the hostel and met up with my husband.  He was pretty tired from the week so we just had a relaxing dinner and drinks at a pub in SoHo and called it a night.

We hit the sightseeing hard the next morning with a walk through Westminster and ending in Trafalgar Square.  After checking out St. Martin-in-the-fields, we toured the National Gallery.  From there we went to the British Museum and the British Library.  (The British Museum contains the Parthenon marbles so it was really nice to have already been to Athens and made us appreciate the marbles that much more.)  Not far from the library was King's Cross Station--a necessary pilgrimage for Harry Potter fans like us.  I walked straight over to platforms 9 and 10, but turnstiles prevent you from entering without a ticket.  I was looking around closely and lingering near the turnstiles when an employee turned to me and asked, "Platform 9 and 3/4?"  "Yes, of course," I replied.  He pointed over to a wall with a sign and part of a luggage cart coming out of the wall.  "Yes, I know about that," I said, "but I'm looking for the actual platform."  He continued to point.  I repeated myself and finally he said, "There's nothing there!"  To which I leaned in and replied, "That's because you're a Muggle."  He good-naturedly scanned a card to allow me to enter and see for myself (I can't share exactly what I did see, of course) and then I encountered two more employees who pointed again to the wall nearby.  I reiterated that I was looking for the actual platform to which they replied, "Platform 5--that's where it was filmed."  "What was filmed?" I said.  "The movie!" they said.  "What movie?" I asked.  :-)

From King's Cross we made our way to get some Thai food since we know London is supposed to be a good place for diverse cuisine.  We weren't quite as happy with this place as we were there place in Amsterdam, which was a bit of a letdown since we were really looking forward to it.  We considered a nighttime trip on the London Eye, but instead just enjoyed some drinks at a pub near our hostel.On Sunday morning we took a break from the minimal hostel breakfast and purchased two cooked breakfasts from the restaurant.  I had the English breakfast (basically just an Irish breakfast) that was
enough food to feed both of us and enough cholesterol to stop even the strongest heart and my husband enjoyed some French Toast.
This gave us a slightly more relaxed morning than the day before and was nice for a Sunday.  Afterwards we took the tube to St. Paul's and participated in the choral matins service.  From there we walked to the Tower of London and had a short tour before seeing the crown jewels and all of the other exhibits.  I kept thinking that Kate must have been there as a kid on school trips or with her family and it probably never occurred to her that one day she'd wear one of those crowns.  Once we'd thoroughly gone over the place we walked across the Tower Bridge (taking lots of pictures) and went to Shakespeare's Globe.  This is a replica of the Globe theatre from Shakespeare's time that was rebuilt in 1997 to be as close to the original as possible.  There is a museum underneath with lots of interesting information about Shakespeare and theatre during that time which we explored before having a really nice tour.  The theatre really is so cool and if you've seen Shakespeare in Love it feels like you're really in the movie.  It was without a doubt one of the most-effective historical replicas I'd ever experienced--I felt so much more connected to Shakespeare and theatre and it made me really want to see a play there. 
The show that night was sold out but before the show there was a "returned ticket" queue and we decided to give it a go.  We got really lucky because we ended up being just given two tickets for free by a couple of girls who walked up to the line and skipped the box office and just asked who wanted them.  Based on who got in, we may not have seen the show if it weren't for these girls.  It was a chilly day and we'd decided not to wear jackets, but the theatre is open to the air and we were in the "groundlings" (standing on the floor next to the stage) so we wanted our jackets.  We quickly ran back to the hostel to get them and grabbed a sandwich to split before the show since we had very little time.  The play was As You Like It and it was really really great--just perfect to see at the Globe and we had a great time standing by the stage.  I have heard many times that Shakespeare was never meant to be read like we do in high school and that is why so many do not appreciate it.  It is so true--we were both so caught up in the story and drawn in by the experience of being in this theatre and seeing the play the way it was meant to be seen.  It was also the last night of this particular show that had been touring worldwide so that was special as well.  After the show we went back to the pub near the hostel and split a fish and chips dinner before calling it a night.

My husband had gotten really excited about possibly seeing the show Wicked while we were in town so on Monday morning we visited the official half-price "tckts" booth in Leicester Square where we got decently priced seats for the show.  From there we visited the Victoria & Albert museum and the Natural History Museum which only reaffirmed that London's museum buildings are impressive even without the exhibits.  Wanting to have some Indian food during the trip, we found a nearby Indian restaurant for lunch.  It was nice to find something spicy and I think I'll be looking for more Indian in the future.  We wanted to attend the five o'clock evensong at Westminster so we had some time and decided to check out Hyde Park.  I had wanted to be sure to see the Diana Memorial fountain and after that we just walked across and over to Buckingham Palace (Brice hadn't been yet).  We rested our feet a bit and then attended the evensong service.  It's amazing how much is packed into that small abbey--I don't think there is room for much more in the future.  Then we walked to where the show was and found a pub to split another fish and chips and drinks before going to the theatre.  The seats were just a few rows from the back, but it was a clear view and the show was good.  Not as good as we'd expected from how much we'd heard about it, but it was still enjoyable.

By Tuesday morning I still had not ridden on a double-decker bus so we hopped on one going toward the Museum of London.  This museum has the history of only London from way before it was London up until today.  It was interesting, but we were hoping for more information about British history and this museum is a bit more anthropological than historical.  Next we moved back across the river for the Tate Modern.  This sounded like something we'd really like according to the description from Rick Steves, but it seemed to be missing the favorite artists he'd said were there and it was not exactly our taste.  Because of that, we didn't spend much time there and instead walked along the river and back to Trafalgar Square.  We still had not found a napkin ring and ornament (I think London is zoned against a lot of the normal tourist shops or something), but we'd seen both at the St. Martin gift shop and thought we'd go back and get those.  Still having some time we decided to do the National Portrait Gallery that we had skipped before.  It was pretty good and nice to see (they have the only portrait of Shakespeare that is painted from real life and a bust of Florence Nightingale!) but we were both hoping for a long hall with a portrait of each and every monarch, one after the other.  (Hopefully the curator is reading this!)



After all of that, it was finally time to go home.  There were still lots of things we would have liked to see and do, but we hope to get back sometime--it was such a great trip.  London is expensive in many respects, but there is so much to do and so many of the museums are free (donations encouraged).  I think if you want to take your children abroad, London is one of the best places to do it because you won't be upset if you paid an arm and a leg for a museum they don't even like and they will be less inclined to be afraid and uncomfortable because they know the language.

Here is a link to the rest of the photos:
London

And here is a video from the changing of the guard:
video

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