It’s been more than three months, but I’m finally getting a chance to write a bit about our amazing trip to Europe. Rather than ramble on and on as I’m prone to do (just ask anyone who’s sat through the whole photo-showing session), I’m breaking up my post into five parts: one for every major city we visited. So here goes.
London overall impressions
Man, I want to go back. London as a city reminded me a lot of New York. We stayed at a hotel off Victoria Road in Westminster, so we were surrounded by townhouses and apartments, just blocks from office buildings and major streets, just like Manhattan. Also like Manhattan, if you walked a block or two you ran into something famous. We saw plenty of the familiar red busses and phone booths, but we also saw tons of Pret A Manger locations, "Look Right" directions at crosswalks, red and white Tube trains, and other things that I now associate with London.
Everything next to one another
My first time in New York, I passed Trinity Church, saw Federal Hall, and turned around to see the New York Stock Exchange. London reminded me of that. Standing at Westminster Abbey, we could see Parliament and the Eye directly across the Thames. Just a few blocks away sits 10 Downing Street and just past that is Buckingham Palace. It’s amazing that so much is in such close proximity.
Our hotel was just a few blocks from Westminster Abbey, home of a millennium of history and a bunch of dead famous people. Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, and literally dozens of royalty are all in the same (quite large) room. Unfortunately this was one of the only places we went where photographs weren’t allowed, but the Abbey is amazingly huge and impressive. The highlight for me was the Henry VII Lady Chapel with its amazingly intricate ceiling that was barely spared from the German bombs that fell just a few feet away during World War II.
Tower of London
While many of the major tourist sights are amazing in how they’re still used (Westminster Abbey has services; people live at Buckingham Palace), the Tower of London was straight up touristy. There were field trips and museum-like displays and (very well-done) tours led by Yeoman Warders. It was also expensive (£22 each!), but I still enjoyed the experience. It’s an incredible site, at times home of the government, prisoners, and now rotating exhibits in the White Tower. In the US, I expect tours of historic sites to tell me what happened there. The Tower is so old, a comprehensive history isn’t even known: many of the stories are just lore or unsolved history. And even the history is unbelievable: in the (still operating) chapel, thousands of bodies are buried inches under the floor. Oh, and right next door are the Crown Jewels: the sickeningly extravagant coronation hardware that has been used for hundreds of years (no pictures allowed here either).
It’s ridiculous how much history is at the British Museum, starting with the Rosetta Stone. Obviously the most popular attraction, the stone was surrounded by a huge crowd (on the side with writing) and much larger than I imagined it. (I had seen a model of it in high school that I thought was life-size. It wasn’t. Maybe a tenth of the real size.) Other crazy old artifacts include Egyptian mummies (like actual real bodies in there), board games from Ur, and my favorite: the huge lion hunt carving from Ninevah (like Daniel’s Ninevah). Wild. It was also interesting to see the Native American room. Old hat to us, but quite packed by curious British students.
Our only excursion outside the city was taking a bus to Stonehenge (thanks, Chase Rewards points!), a site Lori has always wanted to visit. Our bus (sorry, “coach”) driver was a character who gave us a bit of a tour of our route two hours out to Stonehenge. Once we got to the site, we walked out to the stones and followed the path around, taking lots of pictures and listening to the audio guide. I always knew that Stonehenge was an impressive feat, but seeing the rocks up close makes you realize how incredibly heavy they are, yet how amazing it is that they’ve been there thousands of years. Unexpectedly, those rocks in that windy field were one of my favorite parts of the trip.
The Lion King
For something completely non-historic, we decided a week or two before leaving to try to catch a musical in West End. Neither of us have seen a musical on Broadway, and we figured the British version would be quite an experience. Out of all the plays and musicals, we chose The Lion King. I’m not a theater expert by any means, but it was fantastic. Having seen the movie dozens (hundreds?) of times, it was equal parts familiar and completely new. Very well done and I’d highly recommend it.
While we never toured Buckingham Palace (it wasn’t open for visitors while we were there), we walked by it multiple times to look and take pictures. On our last day in London, we sent to see the Changing the Guard ceremony. We arrived 45 minutes early, but that was too late to be able to see much of the ceremony. We watched the beginning, but as it started to rain, we began walking down The Mall. We saw the traffic halt and a police-escorted car drove by. The Queen and Philip were sitting in the backseat. We later checked Facebook and realized that we had a friend on the other side of the crowd. Elizabeth’s car drove by and they got a better photo than we did.
Watching the news
I love watching the local news when traveling, and the London morning show on the BBC was a delight to watch. First of all, they spoke English (which means we didn’t see any other city’s news on this trip). It was interesting to see current issues in Britain (Cameron vs Miliband was the topic du jour while we were there) as well as the British reports on international news (the kidnapping of the Nigerian girls was a major story at the time). When we got back to the US, I found streams of the BBC and SkyNews and occasionally watch them to get my UK news and British accent fix.
We weren’t extremely adventurous with food in London as we were typically on the go, trying to pack everything into our few days. The most unorthodox (for us) included fish and chips, pie and mash, ham pizza with an egg on top, hummus wraps, and a prawn and mayonnaise sandwich. All were delicious.
Things we missed
We lost about 12 hours in London because of our flight issues (arrived late, missed flight) in Toronto. There is plenty that we ruled out because of time constraints anyway, but the delay cut out even more. We didn’t go up in the Eye (so expensive), into Shakespeare’s Globe, the National Gallery, or St Paul’s Cathedral, though we walked all around them. We missed Abbey Road, 221B Baker Street (or Speedy’s Cafe), Regent’s Park, the Greenwich Observatory, or anything outside of London except Stonehenge. I could easily spend another week in London and not double up on any thing. We crammed quite a bit into two and a half days.