Wednesday, December 20, 2006

London - March 2006

London, UK. March 2006.

After our last vacation in South Africa we decided that our next vacation should be to some European destination. So in the first week of March 2006 we packed our bags and head for London. Beforehand, we spent weeks searching the Internet for cheap airline tickets and lodging. Monica found us an apartment/flat on EBay, just off Victoria Street in Westminster, across from the Irish Guards Barracks, two minutes walk to St. James’s Underground station and a few blocks from Buckingham Palace. A real nice location and it turned out a very nice apartment. Tiny, but with all the amenities. The 1st week of March! Are we crazy? Sure it was cool, everyday was around 8 ÂșC and we had rain (luckily only on the last day of sightseeing) but it was far cheaper than going in August. The apartment was only $1000 for 8 days and our plane tickets were only $384 each, roundtrip from Lexington, KY. Compare to the usual summertime prices, these were bargains.

Right: Monica parading on Trafalgar Square.

We had a list of places we wanted to go to and I even worked out a day-to-day itinerary, but once there we followed our mood and ignore the itinerary. We arrived at Gatwick and took the train to Victoria Station and from there the underground to St. James’s station, not knowing that it would have been much better to take a cab/taxi to our apartment instead of slogging with luggage up and down stairs in the underground. By the time we unpacked and settled in a bit it was after 2:00 PM and too late to do any major sightseeing, so we walked around the neighborhood to familiarize ourselves. We quickly realized we did not bring enough of the right clothes. We needed good gloves and wooly hats and an extra jersey or two. Wind-chill was the major factor. We strolled down Victoria Street, bought some clothes, and on our way back to the apartment we stopped and explored a Sainsbury grocery store and bought some rations for the week and dinner for that evening, things we have not eaten in a while – steak and kidney pies and samoosas.

The next day we went to the Tower of London, looked at the Crown jewels and explored the surrounding areas on foot. The place is interesting, but nothing spectacular. The second day, a sunny, cool Saturday, with clear blue skies, we bought tickets on an open air bus at Victoria Station and got a second day free. We decided to abandon the specific itinerary and hop on and off the bus whenever we were close to one of the places we wanted to see or didn’t even think of seeing. That weekend we drove through Kensington and Chelsea; Notting Hill and Mayfair; pass Grosvenor Square and through Berkeley Square; had breakfast just off Trafalgar Square and snap pictures of pigeons, statues and South Africa House; explored Westminster Abby. What a contrast: disappointment…in some areas there were so many people one hardly had time to properly look at anything before one gets shove on to the next, a real human sausage machine; historical wonderment…walking over the same hollowed-by-time steps and stone floors and through the same cloisters that so many kings, queens, clergy and statesmen have walked (the thought that both Monica and I thought of while in the place was: if walls could talk…), and amazement…amazement at the overall artistry of the sculptures and the work of the master builders who built the place over hundreds of years, especially The Lady Chapel (Henry VII’s chapel, 1502-1519) (Pictured left), which must be one of the most incredible buildings ever erected in the medieval times and even beyond, from an architectural and artistic points of view the roof is unbelievably beautiful. More pictures of Westminster Abbey.

We gaped at Big Ben, the Parliament buildings and the London Eye. We spent too much time at the Victoria & Albert Museum (although some art and fashion clothing pieces were exquisite, and we paid too much for a brunch.) We cross the Themes via the Westminster Bridge and then cross back and fro several times via the Waterloo, London and finally the Tower Bridges. We contemplated tea and scones at The Ritz, but settled for it in a cozy tearoom, a block from Buckingham Palace. (It is amazing how good hot tea taste when coming out of the cold into a warm, cozy room.)
(Pictured: Lamar and Andre at the Tower of London with the Tower Bridge in the background.)
We walked across The Green Park, took photos of Buckingham Palace, decided against waiting for the changing of the guard, explored the Queens’ Gallery store and ate fish and chips and bangers and mash in old taverns…and just generally indulged ourselves in the ancient and historical beauty of London’s architecture…just like kids that just discovered an unknown candy world.

The Monday was undoubtedly the highlight of our vacation. We

took a train to Russell Square station to visit the British Museum.

Andre freezing on an open bus.

We spent the whole day there and when we had to leave at 5:00 PM we could hardly stay on our feet anymore. There was just so much to see and not enough time. Highlights were the Rosetta Stone, the Assyrian relief carvings from Nimrud and Nineveh Palaces, the Egyptian Hall with its massive statue of Ramesses II, and the Parthenon sculptures. How they got all the wonderful pieces to London is still unbelievable. For years, ownership of several items in the museum has been questionable of how each was acquired. I guess some was outright theft, others the spoils of war or because of a treaty at the end of a war (The Rosetta Stone from Napoleon), and others still from colonization or treasure hunters. (Greece has long been demanding the return of the 253 sculptures from the Parthenon.)

Monica and Lamar giving their feet a rest in the British Museum.

The Tuesday, we took an Underground train to Waterloo station and from there a British Rail train to Hampton Court Palace, to hang out at Henry the VIII and Cardinal Wolsley’s old joint. What an interesting place! The old 17th century kitchens and state departments of the Hanoverian kings were the highlights. On our penultimate day the rain came, a soft constant drizzle. We took a London cab (what else but black) to Harrods, explored the place and bought a few things and thereafter had an English breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast and baked beans at Giraffe in Kensington (that bacon was excellent…just as we always remember it from South Africa.) From there we walked to Kensington Palace for our last visit to a London attraction. I can’t really say I found the old lodgings of George III and Princess Diana enchanted. Rather plain and boring.

The London Eye next to the Aquarium.

The next day we took a cab to Victoria Station, board the Gatwick Express to the airport and flew back to Lexington via Detroit. As always we could not get to all places in such a short time. We never got round to St Paul’s Cathedral, or do a walking tour in the Paul Mall area and I would have like to explored the streets and architecture of London more.

Once back at home we needed a day or two to recuperate. But London was magnificent, most definitely worth the visit and worth a return visit in the future. I never had a better birthday present.

One evening we ate at this tavern, around the corner from Buckingham Palace. The tavern has been in operation since 1820.

Monica inside Harrods at the Diana and Dodi Memorial.

Hampton Court Palace - Monica on The Staircase leading to the Queen Anne's State Apartments

Westminster Cathedral in Victoria Street.

The Parliament Buildings and Big Ben at Westminster Palace. Just behind the Palace is Westminster Abbey.

Westminster Abbey - The west entrance.
The Old and the New: A modern glass walkway attached to the old wall of the London Dungeons.

In Front of Buckingham Palace.

Monica and Lamar in front of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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