Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Europe Trip 2012

Day 1: Somebody pinch me 
My pulse quickened as our section was called to board the plane. It was our first European adventure together. The wife visited Prague a few years ago but this was my first time across the pond. Central America is the only place that would see yours truly leave the land of strip malls, SUVs, and fast food. The plan was London, Belgium, Paris, Lisbon, and Madrid for 17 days. If this were a menu item it'd be the European sampler.
     The preparation for this busy trip had spanned well over a year. Countless hours were spent looking at Fodor's forums, reading DK travel books, plotting attractions on Google Earth, and so on. I spent so much time on Google Earth that i knew where attractions, metro stops, and hotels were by heart. I learned some rudimentary French and Portuguese with a dash of Dutch... GPS applications, currency converter, timetables, disposible boxers, itineraries, my plan to beat jetlag, offline maps; everything was accounted for.
      The weeks leading up to this dragged by in agonizing fashion. Nights were restless. The weather updates became an obsession. Initial forecasts predicted that London would be cool and drizzly with improving conditions in the days that followed. My gamble on early March appeared to pay dividends. The umbrella was the only item i hoped would never make it out of my small suitcase.
      After stowing my carry on in the bin above, i buckled up, sat back, and thought "today is finally here." Dinner followed takeoff along with a valiant effort to catch some Zs. The best i could do however, was to rest with my eyes closed. It was so dark and quiet in the cabin with only the rhythmic humming of the aircraft's engines. Eventually the night sky gave way to pink on the horizon. As breakfast carts came around the smell of coffee revived everybody and one by one shades went up as morning light filled the cabin. We descended through overcast skies and finally touched down at London Heathrow.
     Customs was a breeze and since we had carry on only, there was no need to wait for luggage. After a quick coffee we withdrew some pounds from an ATM and purchased a couple of Oyster cards for the tube (subway). Our car would emerge outdoors occasionally to give a glimpse of the old looking buildings we zipped past. The Piccadilly line got us from Heathrow to central London in about 45 minutes.
     I'll never forget the feeling that rushed through me as we exited the station outside. A blast of chilly air greeted us at the top of the stairs. The Marble Arch stood right in front of us with a large sculpture of a horse head behind it.

Hyde Park and the Marble Arch welcomed us to London.

 As was the case with many attractions, it looked much larger than it did in photos. Behind it was Hyde Park blanketed with fog. It looked mysterious, almost magical. Black cabs and red double decker buses whizzed by at dizzying intervals. I expected London to be a British version of New York City with more similarities than differences but it already felt different. I would continue to compare the two for the duration of our time here. After soaking this in for a few seconds locals began to brush past us on Oxford Street's narrow sidewalk. After a few snapshots it dawned on me that our luggage was a virtual barricade so we moved on.
     The Leonard was our hotel choice mainly because of it's short distance from the Marble Arch tube stop. Reviews on tripadvisor were generally warm so it seemed like a no brainer. This, being a boutique hotel, had some old-world British charm to offer and we looked forward to that. The roaring fireplace inside was a welcome contrast to the chill outdoors. Reception was friendly and went over some policies and timetables. It was only 9 AM so they allowed us to drop off our bags. Afterward, we walked back outside for some sightseeing.
 My plan was for some light tourism to combat a jet lagged fog yet neither of us felt sleepy. The first thing we did was walk along Oxford street for a while observing some old world architecture mixed in with modern. Pleasant aromas came from the ethnic food stands we passed. We saw small businesses and huge British department stores like Selfridge's and Marks & Spencer. I couldn't get over the ubiquitous old buildings that teemed with character and age. Locals walked by them as if they were brick walls while i took photos in awe. Some looked like they were ripped right off a medieval castle. Some buildings were crowned by statues. It was like this nearly everywhere in London.

The Leonard
     After nearly walking a mile we caught the tube at Oxford Circus. I immediately noticed that tube stations were buried deep under the ground. I remember reading this once but my feet remembered. It wasn't so much of an issue as when the time came to change lines or exit altogether. A short stairway would lead to a long escalator which then led in turn to more stairs. Equally as interesting was mind the gap printed on the platform floor. We looked at each other and smiled when the intercom announced it.

One of Sarah's coworkers told her to mind the gap before the trip but neither of us knew what it meant. We changed lines and jumped off at Temple.
       Sarah clapped her hands together and said "O.K. I'm ready to go! We're here let's do it." I walked with her along the River Thames towards Cleopatra's needle. It was guarded by a sphinx on each side. Along the way we got our first glimpse of Big Ben but the weather made this very underwhelming.

Sarah is definitely more interested in what's going on near Parliament

My wife and I had one errand to run for the sake of some deep discounts. We had 2for1 coupons for big name attractions but a train ticket from any national rail station was the prerequisite. Charing Cross station was nearby so we went to go buy some. Since the discounts worked in conjunction with paper tickets from national rail stations, the Oysters we purchased wouldn't work. Any inexpensive paper ticket would do even though we wouldn't be riding the train. We got a couple for Waterloo to Clapham Junction and back for around £4. The coupons themselves were far more valuable than the cheap train fares we'd never use. We made a U-turn and sought out some lesser known sights like the Australia House, Royal Courts of Justice, and the Temple Bar monument. Crossing the streets became increasingly tricky despite the warnings on the road that tell you to look left or right. I could tell Sarah's interest level was beginning to bottom out as she squinted around. She confessed that she was ready for some MAJOR London sights. I wanted to save the best attractions for the best weather but today would be dreary so I'd have to compromise.

down the Strand with Royal Courts of Justice on the left

By this time we'd been walking for over three hours and our stomachs began to grumble. A couple of colorful pubs we passed were closed but they were gorgeous nonetheless. Before leaving i downloaded an offline GPS app that would show us where we were on a map peppered with highlights. I tried in vain to get it to work but the GPS function simply refused to. I could still see the map but not our exact location; no moving dot. After wandering around we reached our destination; Trafalgar Square. This picturesque area was lined with fountains, loads of tourists, and places to sit. My wife took advantage of this while i shot photos nearby. The National Gallery was nearby and Big Ben loomed once more in the distance. There were lots of kids climbing the 4 big lions at the base of Nelson's column. I must have watched at least 3 almost bust their asses trying.


It was fun just people watching here. One thing i loved about London was the ethnic diversity. Everywhere i went there were more people of Indian or Asian descent than Caucasian. In Trafalgar Square however, i didn't detect many British accents so i assumed this was tourist central.  After making my rounds I met up with Sarah to find a place to eat. There were slim pickins nearby so we made our way back to a place we passed called Garfunkel's. A demonstration rally was beginning to take place outside which we had front row seats for. It was a sobering reminder that we were in a country capital as I've witnessed similar demonstrations in DC. Sarah had pancakes and i ordered the full English breakfast. I really embraced tomatoes and mushroom for breakfast as this was completely foreign to me. The bacon here was obviously from the back of the pig and not the belly  strips like in the US. I enjoyed this style of bacon and would encounter it everywhere else we went in Europe.

I found HP sauce interesting as well. It reminded me of a tangy, sweeter version of A1 but it's probably much older. The only thing i didn't enjoy were the barely cooked eggs. Runny egg whites gross me out. Sarah's pancakes weren't great but she woofed em down nonetheless. After refueling we set back out to Trafalgar Square towards the National Gallery. Just outside there was an entertaining busker that commanded the attention of dozens of passerbys. As we made our way inside the sun finally began to come out and it warmed up a bit.

     As was the case with most major museums in London, admission was free. This large art gallery featured collections that dated back to the 13th century. We viewed works from such masters such as Rembrandt, Leonardo Da Vinci, and Peter Paul Rubens. As a graphic design major in college i remember snoring my way through art history. Standing face to face before the Arnolfini Portrait by Van Eyck, however, was a very contrasting experience. We browsed and browsed until it all started to run together.

     Leicester Square was close by so it was next on our agenda. The GPS still wasn't working on my iPhone and it was really pissing me off. Sarah reminded me of the lag between our Garmins at home and the satellites in an effort to calm me down. Wives have a way of putting things into perspective. The West End is essentially London's Hollywood; home to over 40 Broadway shows and theaters. There was massive construction that was taking place and we were bummed to learn that it would all be finished in less than ten days.


 Despite this, we enjoyed the huge signs and neon lights associated with this red carpet district. We considered a West End show before leaving but left it out of our budget. The thinking ahead of time was that it would be expensive and we wouldn't be heartbroken if we didn't go. Seeing the majestic facades of these theaters, however, had us second guessing ourselves. There was a kiosk called TKTS that sells same night theater tickets for half price. Hmmmm...maybe another night?
     Heading west along Shaftesbury Ave. we came across bustling Piccadilly Circus. Locals and tourists alike blended in here, some sitting under the Eros statue. Huge LCD screens flashed different advertisements which i liked. I did a good job not thinking about Times Square which is obviously much larger. Times Square, however has it's billboards on skyscrapers while Piccadilly Circus blends theirs with gorgeous old buildings. Locals in NYC would have nothing to do with Times Square but the same couldn't be said about London. There were plenty of UK residents here and cockney accents detected. We came across a large Ripley's museum but that wasn't on our planner. There were a few buskers with one successfully posing as a statue.

This was one of the few areas i was more interested in after dark so we moved on. It was convenient to have Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and Piccadilly Circus within easy walking distance of one another.
     It was nearing 4PM and our dogs had paid the price so we decided to jump on a red bus. After grabbing a seat on top we let our throbbing feet rest and enjoyed the scenery. We headed west along Piccadilly and got off at Hyde Park Corner. There were several monuments clustered together in Hyde Park so we enjoyed them in a car-free setting. The Wellington Arch was London's answer to the Arc d'Triomphe in Paris and the highlight of this area. The quadriga on top is the largest bronze sculpture in all of Europe.


 It was now clear that my wife's feet were in pain as she sat on a bench. We wrapped up and checked into our hotel. A tiny elevator (lift) got us to the 4th floor and stairs that led to our room on the 5th. It was very cozy and clean. After settling in Sarah stayed behind to nurse her blisters and relax while i planned some more tourism. 
     Showing no signs of fatigue or jet lag i kept waiting for the adrenaline to wear off. Maybe it would hit me like a ton of bricks when it got dark. Maybe I'd realize what the time was back in Raleigh and wanna pass out. It didn't happen. I kept waiting for this but it never did. I grabbed my international cell phone and headed back out for some more sights. It had a UK phone number Sarah could call or text when i was out.
     Upon seeing a notably bluer sky i took a bus and got off near Trafalgar Square. It was much nicer outside as i wandered around taking photos. Admiralty Arch was nearby so i went to check that out. It was a large office building that featured a triple entrance. The outer two were open for traffic but the one in the middle is reserved only for royal occasions. It leads towards Buckingham Palace but that was another adventure for another day.


Lord Nelson atop his column and Admiralty Arch

I poked around Soho for a little while and caught a glimpse of the Chinese shops along Gerrard St. The sun was beginning to go down so i went back to the room to meet up with my better half. 
     It was about time for dinner and i don't remember what we originally decided on. Indian or fish and chips most likely? Sarah and I decided to give the bus another go and save our feet. This ended up being a HUGE mistake. As it slowed down for a stop the intercom would announce "next stop Queen's Grove.......Golder's Green" and then a few minutes later "next stop: Boundary Road.........Golder's Green" I couldn't help noticing that our surroundings had become increasingly more residential. Far less street lights or pedestrians. This didn't look like Oxford Street or anywhere that would be lined with restaurants. Lo and behold the GPS in my iPhone finally kicks in and we were heading North away from London! Dammit! We hopped off and quickly abandoned plans to find the closest pub as there was pretty much nothing around. This was definitely our most frustrating misadventure so far. Fortunately we came across a tube station that would take us towards Waterloo.
      I had penciled in Masters Superfish as one of the locals' favorite "chippys" so that was our plan. After a line change and a 10 minute walk we arrived. It was a little unusual being seated so close to other people. Their tables are literally six inches away from yours. An old couple nearby stared the entire time but i dismissed this as mere curiosity. The fish itself was fantastic. I had a large fillet of haddock, tartar sauce, chips, and a pickle spear. Sarah had the chicken Kiev which she found mundane.

 I wanted her to have a good meal here and so far we were striking out. My batter was crispy on the outside with moist, flaky fish on the inside. The food wasn't phenomenal or anything but definitely satisfying. 
     We headed back to the hotel for the night and had fun flipping through some British TV stations. A commercial for German caffeinated shampoo was of particular interest. As 9PM rolled around i wasn't quite ready for bed so i headed out once more. My thirst for tourism was far greater than anything my body was trying to tell me. Nighttime photography was something of a hobby of mine so the urge to visit previously unseen attractions was strong. I decided, instead, to only revisit some areas we checked out earlier. My first order of business was a very vibrant Piccadilly Circus. This was an absolute teen magnet at night. Apparently they like to hang out under the Eros statue. The way the neon lights reflected off the Victorian buildings was total eye candy. I took loads of photos here. After i had my fill the kids were starting to get obnoxious so i bolted.

My last stop was the embankment near Cleopatra's needle. I wanted a long exposure shot of the sphinx with the London Eye in the background. From this vantage point, you could easily see the Houses of Parliament, St Paul's Cathedral, and the Gherkin. It made me feel good when i saw other photographers setting up their tripods, doing the same thing i was. Shortly after these photos the dome of St Paul's went completely dark. Apparently they turn off the lights late at night.


It was getting close to midnight when i decided to call it quits. My feet were a little sore but this was the only sign of wear on my first day. Had my excitement conquered the jet lag so many tourists complain of? The night air was cool and crisp as i walked back to the nearly deserted Temple station. I had no clue when service stopped; a mistake i would pay for eventually but not tonight. The few people i saw sprinting down escalators told my brain there was still a train or two. It was nice to sit down knowing that my hotel bed with Sarah in it was mere minutes away. I thumbed through the camera roll as i drifted from station to station. Aside from the rattling train tracks it was quiet: dead quiet because i had the whole carriage to myself. It was weird, but in a good way. Nobody brushing past you to get off with a quick but polite "SORE-ee!" No English accents from gossipy Indian ladies. Nobody scowling at me for having my feet propped up. My only travel companion now was a copy of the Daily Telegraph that lay on the floor. It was a fitting end to my first day in England.

Day 2: A tough lesson on public transportation
     We woke up around 9AM after a great night's rest and got ready for another full day. Breakfast was included at our hotel's restaurant: Seymour's. It was lavishly decorated with red walls and British portraits. We chose the round table near the window which would become our regular spot the remainder of our stay. Sarah seemed quite happy with her selection of toast, yogurt, and fruit. We also had juice and coffee that was served in a very interesting container with grounds at the bottom. Adding lumps as opposed to sugar packets made me feel a bit more "local".

My full English breakfast was excellent but once again, my egg whites were runny. Was this a European thing? I also noticed that the yolks were a lighter color than in America. Everything was tasty, especially the Cumberland sausage and mushrooms. Our plan for today was to jump right into some A-list attractions on the east side of the city. We hopped on the tube en route to the Tower of London. Surprisingly, there weren't many passengers but it WAS a Sunday morning.
     We arrived at the Tower Hill stop and made our way towards the queue for tickets. It was this very line that i was grateful we'd chosen March to visit Europe. I could only imagine how crowds would surge during peak season. Our 2for1 coupon saved us £18; the equivalent of $28.66. Our paper train tickets had already paid for themselves 3 times over!  Our morning at the Tower of London was a fascinating one. There was SOOO much to see here.. so much history. We took our sweet time and explored the grounds at a leisurely pace.

a look around the castle's grounds

  Yeoman warders gave free tours near the entrance but we decided to wing it on our own. The different towers all had something different to offer. I was very interested in The Bloody Tower were 2 young princes were presumably murdered by their uncle. Their tiny skeletons were found walled up years after vanishing. Doomed souls entered by boat through Traitor's Gate. I could only imagine what was going on in the mind of a prisoner as they entered. To hear the screams of pain coming from inside must have been terrifying.

Traitor's Gate
 I saw the torture chamber which Sarah took a pass on. The condemned were subjected to gruesome torture on devices like the rack. Some of these were on display with illustrations and descriptions of how they were used. Next we headed to the Jewel House. The highlight  was me getting kicked out for taking this sneaky picture of the crown jewels. 


An old lady led your friend out and scolded me in a thick English accent: "Ah now ya being crafty! Now ya can leave the premises! No photography...3 signs told ya so." My wife came back out a short while later with a big smile on her face. We laughed about it and then checked out the armory in the White Tower. Medieval suits of armor (including several belonging to Henry VIII) and tons of weapons were on display inside. It was a fantastic collection! Sarah got alot out of the descriptions on each exhibit. I was happy to see her engaged and intrigued with her surroundings. After a full morning of exploring it was time to throw in the towel. We had a good view of the Tower Bridge which appeared much closer than the map suggested. It was nearing 1PM, however, so we decided to grab lunch first.

After one tube stop we got off at Monument. We walked along the nearly deserted Gracechurch street looking for Leadenhall Market. It was featured in several films including one of the Harry Potters. There were a few cafes here and i had one already picked out called the Lamb Tavern. Unfortunately, everything was completely closed. Doh!


 We left and tried finding a pub or something along Leadenhall St. but to no avail. This was London's financial district and i should have known there would be slim pickins on a Sunday. Pedestrians and buses seemed to vanish as the walk progressed. Upon stumbling across the egg shaped Gherkin our decision was to head back towards Gracechurch St.

old and new
  Hungry and cranky, the restaurant search continued. Hope was running on E until we spotted a place called The Folly. A sandwich board advertised their Sunday Roast so we went inside.
      This place had a very hip interior with flowerpots for lamp shades and soft, soothing techno style music. I just accepted the fact that diners here are ridiculously close to one another and let it go. We started things off with a carafe of water and a Stella Artois. The Sunday Roast is a traditional meal in the UK and designed to be shared. We went with the baked chicken with seasonal vegetables and roast gravy.


The chicken was fall off the bone tender and served on a carving board. It was accompanied by a casserole dish with veggies, creamy noodles, and Yorkshire pudding. We absolutely destroyed our lunch with barely any conversation. I have to tell you, this was one of the best meals we had in all of Europe. "Brilliant" as the English would say.
     Nearby stood the towering Monument, short for Monument to the great fire of London. As it's name implies, it's a single doric column that commemorates the disaster that ripped through the city in 1666. At 202 ft it's the tallest isolated column in the world.


 I paid £3 to climb the 311 stairs to the top. Sarah, on the other hand, wisely parked it on a bench and read the inscriptions at the base of the column. The first fifty stairs were no sweat but after those my thighs started to burn! There were people climbing up the spiralling staircase behind me so stopping wasn't an option. It was so narrow, i hated to think what it was like in the summer: senior citizens and fat tourists causing massive backups. I huffed and puffed my way to the top but was rewarded with panoramic views.

As the lactic acid in my legs wore off i took deep breaths and lots of photos, of course. I'm not claustrophobic or anything but those were some tight quarters up there. Too many people coming up for the view and not enough leaving, so I did the honors. The climb back down was cake and a certificate awaited me before exiting.
     Sarah had trouble with her Oyster card because some chick cut in front of her as she tried to tap out. This cost us a few quid but no huge deal. We took the tube back to Tower Hill but walked past the castle this time towards the bridge. I got some good pictures of it from the north side of the embankment and was content to move on. My wife, however, suggested getting up close and personal with this gorgeous landmark. Looking back I'm so happy we did this. Tower Bridge is a moving draw bridge that looks much older than it actually is; completed in 1894. Some tourists mistakenly call it London Bridge which is actually the next one upstream. There was lots of foot traffic here; mostly tourists like us, a few joggers. My wife fell in love with this beautiful structure.

We paused often to look up and admire the 2 Victorian towers and colorful suspension chains. It's one thing to see this in a book or in photos but in person it simply takes your breath away. After crossing there was a boardwalk just to the right that ran along the river. Sarah relaxed with the locals, soaking in the sunshine on the lawn. I, meanwhile, took lots of photos of the bridge we just crossed.
hi-res file stitched from 16 images
This was a very relaxing area so we took our time here. When it was time to move on we passed by City Hall, Hay's Galleria, and the HMS Belfast. A vendor was roasting up sugar coated peanuts that smelled too good to pass up. They tasted like warm cracker jacks. Delicious!

  The sun was beginning to set so we made our way back to the hotel. We saw the Shard on the way back to the nearest tube station. It was London's tallest building and i wondered if it'd be completed in time for the Olympic games. My wife and I walked our asses off changing lines by foot. There were several moving walkways at least, like you see in airports. After talking about a west end show we made a detour and found the TKTS kiosk in Leicester Square. It was closed but there were only about 7 shows advertised. After freshening up Sarah went down to the lobby to research Broadway shows on the TKTS website. There wasn't a very big selection so we gave up. London is world famous for it's many Indian restaurants so we set out for a curry. She had a place called Tamarind picked out so off we went. Upon arrival we were shocked by the upscale atmosphere and then noticed that they had a Michelin Star. Now don't get me wrong... i have nothing against a fancy restaurant but it was only day #2. We chickened out and set out for a new search. haha. We then stumbled upon a French looking area lined with cafes and found one. It was called Mayfair Tandoori.

There weren't many people inside but the service was excellent. Our waiter was genuinely interested in us and asked about our country. He steered me clear away from a lamb dish that would have burnt my tongue off. I really appreciated that. When the food arrived it was quite good. The portions were on the small side but i had expected that ahead of time.  We shared dishes including tandoori chicken, paneer saag, rice, and naan. The spice level was a happy medium for our American tongues.

  Dinner was terrific for both of us and probably a fraction of what the other place was. Our waiter wished us happy adventures in London and then we shoved off. I went back out for some night shots of Tower Bridge once Sarah and I returned to the hotel.
      Security let me know i had an hour before the last trains left Tower Hill at 11PM. There was a spot near the Tower of London ticket booths i had picked out from earlier but they were now inaccessible. I jogged back towards the bus stop and took it across the bridge to where we were earlier. After setting up my tripod i rushed what ended up being some very good photos.

By the time i was finished it was 10:45 so i packed up shop and ran to the bus stop. Up ahead two Indian guys hailed the approaching bus, boarded, and took off. There stood your weary friend and world traveler; alone, out of breath, and about 15 seconds too late.
     The next one didn't come for another 10 minutes but i made it to Tower Hill station. Just like the night before, people were running all over the place. My ride was abrupt, only one stop before having to change for the Circle Line. Running through those long deserted corridors sucked.

 As i jogged down the last flight of stairs i could hear a train leaving the platform. Then a PA announcement broadcasted something inaudible. Within seconds Underground security appeared and escorted the few left behind outside. The last train had left. My barren effort began to sink in. I had no choice but to exit the station onto the chilly, empty streets. The old bank buildings here were gorgeous but stress and fatigue got the better of me.

  There was simply nothing and nobody around. No taxis. No buses. I felt like Jim at the beginning of 28 days later. I began to panic a little but had to keep my shit together. A quick sip of water from my day pack and out came the iPhone. My plan was to find a night bus to get back to Marble Arch. After wandering a bit i came across a policeman on patrol. I told him my dilemma and he pointed out a bus stop around the corner that would end at Oxford Circus. After thanking him i jogged over and just caught it. Whew! Back on the road. My legs wanted nothing more than to sit down but every seat was taken. 10 minutes had gone by when i noticed that nothing outside looked familiar.

White Chapel fried chicken? Where the FUCK was i?
I checked my GPS and saw that we were headed east, away from the city. I figured we'd loop around and travel west towards Oxford Circus like the cop said. With each stop a few people would get on but hardly anyone got off. This continued and got to the point where we began to smash up against one other. After another 10 minutes my app showed we were STILL headed east. My heart pounded when i realized how far we were from central London. I texted my wife, squeezed my way off the bus, and caught another going the opposite direction. It took 20 minutes just to get back to where that officer was but at least i had a seat this time. In the end he was right about bus #25. I just took it the wrong damn way. This was far and away the most miserable part of my entire trip. My face hit the pillow like a bowling ball around 1:40 AM.

Day 3: Best experience that was nearly skipped 
What a night! It was our 3rd day of cool morning fog. Mother Nature also made good on her promise for a rain free visit to the UK. My wife learned of my misadventures over breakfast downstairs. I tried hard boiled eggs this time and they came out in these little holders. Today's plan was to take on Westminster Abbey, meet Big Ben, and walk to Buckingham Palace. I enjoyed our mornings together chatting over what we liked, disliked, woulda done different (which in my case would've been to stay in heh heh)

pleasures of the morning

After the daily refill of our Oystercards we rode the tube and got off at Westminster. One of the exciting things about traveling is finally meeting a famous landmark face to face. You know what it looks like. You've seen it many times in movies, books, or online. To see it in person, however, is quite another story. Coming off the tube and standing in the long shadow of Big Ben was an example. It looked enormous at street level and the intricate architecture of the palace itself was mesmerizing. To hear the bell dong on the hour was just as magnificent.



     We passed lots of pedestrians, country flags, and statues (including Churchill and Lincoln) on the way to Westminster Abbey. Apparently the British like their statues black. I say that because almost every one we encountered was. When we arrived the entrance gates were locked and it dawned on us that it was closed. Hmmm... strike 2. At least the fog was lifting.

There was plenty to see around the historic core of Westminster so we wandered. The elaborate buildings here looked very old. I came across the Cenotaph, where the queen pays her annual respects to the defenders of the crown. Very sobering. 
     The Churchill War rooms were just up King St so my wife and I headed in that direction. We used another 2for1 coupon that saved us £15.50. This was the secret underground headquarters  used by the British during WWII. Being a big war buff, i had greatly anticipated this but was worried my wife would be bored. My worries were quickly eased when i saw the complimentary audio guides being passed out. Sarah and i went from room to room soaking up life in these bunkers. The rooms were skillfully mocked up. There were also some nice touches that made you feel you were trapped in the moment. An air raid siren would occasionally wail softly in the background. Nazi bomb raid approaching? Officers would sometimes take smoke breaks and watch these above ground. German broadcasts could be heard and were intercepted in the radio control room. It all seemed so realistic!

A recorded conversation between Churchill and Roosevelt was particularly moving to me. Winston told his friend and ally that it was good to hear his voice; a sobering reminder of the unity between our two countries. In one room there were huge maps dotted with pins denoting German advances. All in all it took just a little over an hour. We were both very impressed.
      We next made our way to the Horse Guards parade just around the corner. To our surprise a large crowd was gathering and i realized what was to take place. I had no intention of catching the changing of the guard ahead of time but knew that they'd be here beforehand. The pageantry itself was not very eventful but everyone got a great view.

Now it was on to Buckingham Palace. St James' Park was very beautiful on the way, even in early March. By this time the sun was out and shining. There were colorful flowers everywhere which Sarah enjoyed. No leaves on the trees but the grass was green as a golf course. Parents watched their kids play near the lake. Pigeons cooing on the sidewalk. Then something hit me: I hadn't seen a single dog since we've been here. Where the hell were they? As we continued, locals hand fed some squirrels that scampered right up to them.

Walking along the mall we reached the outskirts of Buckingham Palace ahead of the guards. There were lots of tourists already waiting for them. The Palace is only open in the summer when the Queen is on holiday so we explored around. The weather was about the only thing that constantly worried me before our trip. I would check forecasts 3 times a day a month out. We were very blessed with what was dealt here in dreary ole' England. With the notable exception of the mornings, it didn't get any colder than about 55° F. Sarah and i climbed up near the Victoria memorial and just basked in the sun for a while.

It's funny how travel planning works. We agreed to skip this before leaving the states yet here we were. The more time i spent in London the wider the gap became between it and New York. What could compete with this? Throwing out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium on opening day? Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? Who knows.  Lunchtime rolled around so it was time to split.
      Sarah had agreed to one meal in Chinatown so that's where we went. This place was quite different from the very unauthentic chinablock of DC. It was a vibrant, living, breathing, lively area that was filled with.....well.....Asian people.

You could smell the fresh fish on ice when you passed one of the small groceries. The place i wanted to eat at was nowhere to be found but it didn't matter. There were numerous restaurants with duck in the window so we just picked one. As soon as our butts touched the seats two forks were placed in front of us. Sarah looked around and complained that everyone had chopsticks except us. To my amusement, she requested some when the waiter returned to take our order. She ordered chicken fried rice and i had the crispy Peking duck with soup.


Hot jasmine tea came out with the food as well. Overall i was pretty pleased. The duck was heavenly! Sarah's dish was a little on the greasy side and had too much fried egg for her liking.
     We walked around a little more after lunch and eventually decided to go back to Leicester Square. Sarah and i wanted to see if there was a better selection of movies at the TKTS booth and to our amazement there was. The one that popped right up off the page was Les Misérables. I had read about this one and remembered that it was the longest running musical in the world. While not half off Sarah scored us a pair of tickets in the stalls for £72. The anticipation of a west end show was awesome! Tonight we'd return all decked out for a night on the town.

done deal
Even in Europe she still finds the discounts! Because Westminster Abbey was closed earlier, St Paul's Cathedral was today's substitute. My wife and i belong to the Episcopal Church; daughter of the Church of England. St Paul's is to us what St Peter's is to a Roman Catholic; the holy Superbowl! Christopher Wren replaced the previous cathedral with this masterpiece after it burned in the great fire of 1666. It was imposing from the outside, especially the dome. I saw it from a distance several times but up close i just felt dwarfed.

      We used a 2for1 coupon for admission and saved £14.50. An iPod guide was included at no cost. The feeling when first walking in was unlike anything I've ever experienced. It was beyond stunning. All this beauty and grandeur were too much for my senses to process. You can look at photos online but it's not the same. Not even close. The interior color scheme was unique compared to other churches: mostly white with gold and wood trim. The vibrant murals on the ceiling.. the stray birds fluttering above....light peering in from the dome... the soothing organ music. I really felt God's grace here. I must admit, i was tempted to snap a few sneaky photos but never entertained this. There was NOOOOOO way i was getting kicked out of here! HA!

        No photography allowed: these are stock images

     A children's choir practiced which was a treat because it saved us a separate visit for evensong. They sang like angels. Our guide showed a recorded broadcast of Princess Diana getting married here. I assumed that all royal nuptials took place at Westminster Abbey but there was more seating here. The crypt below was particularly interesting to me.  The Duke of Wellington and Lord Nelson had large tombs. The included audio guide was very detailed and linear. Sarah stuck to it like glue while i bounced all over the place at random. We sat for a bit in reflection and prayer before leaving. When St Paul's was bombed in WWII, Churchill sent every firetruck available to her rescue. Now i see why. It was a pity this had to be the first church we would encounter. Just didn't seem fair to the other ones.
     Afterward we walked across the Millennium bridge. This pedestrianized footpath was also seen in one of the Potter films. I kept turning around and gazing at St Paul's; impressive from any angle. The River Thames looked less industrial and more scenic from this vantage point. You could see the Shard, Tower Bridge in the distance, and the Gherkin poking above the skyline as if saying "me too!"

A look at the Shard with Tower Bridge well beyond

just couldn't take my eyes off it
 Tate Modern was ahead but we made a U-turn to walk back to St Paul's station. Sarah walked briskly ahead of me as i took lots of photos. My constant photography was getting on her nerves and so I agreed to tone it down, especially in large crowds.
     Back at the Leonard we winded down a bit before fixing ourselves up. She read her book while I charged my cameras' batteries. It was nice to lounge after 3 busy days of sightseeing. A crazy TV show and hot shower later, we were ready. All decked out and smelling fantastic we set off and walked to the underground. 
     London's west end comes alive at night in a way I'd never seen before. A kaleidoscope of neon shimmers over everything. Limos and taxis snake their way down the hustle and bustle of Shaftesbury Ave. Around here the posh theater crowd walks with a little more bounce in their step. It was nice to be among them. The smell of designer perfume filled the air. There was one in particular that i smelled everywhere in London.


Clusters of women strolled along together wearing sumptuous cocktail dresses; arms interlocked, laughing. Girls night out perhaps? It was a very electric vibe.
Our show didn't start for a little over an hour so the plan was to grab some a quick dinner nearby. We spotted the St James tavern and grabbed the last two stools at the bar.

Sarah had noted earlier that since we've been here, we had yet to partake in the most English of customs: have a pint at a pub. To avoid getting too buzzed i ordered us half pints. We were both surprised at how easy it was to order beer without being carded. A huge contrast with the US. I had bangers and mash while she had a grilled chicken breast. Not bad at all.  After woofing this down we made our way to Queen's Theater.   

     I watched Les Misérables the movie but looked forward to my first musical. Sarah went so far as to buy a program guide while we waited. I went into this only hoping she would thoroughly enjoy it. This was a historical fiction about a French uprising of some kind. Jean Valjean, a reformed criminal, tries to better his life but can't suppress his dark past. There was lots of drama, brilliant solos, and a few laughs here and there. As for the singing, these were some talented professionals.

 Just before Act 1 ends Jean Valjean sings his part softly in "One Day More". Gradually, more and more characters tune in as the song builds with intensity. At a pivotal moment in the story their voices rose in unison like a storm. It was so loud and triumphant. To hear that many people sing in harmony was impressive! I couldn't stop humming it to myself even after we left. Somewhere near the end i accidentally dropped my iPhone and couldn't find it right away. I had to get down on my hands and knees using my camera's LCD as a flashlight. This was the only part that sucked! The actors and actresses were very energetic and made this a memorable experience for us. Sarah loved Les Misérables and couldn't believe we nearly skipped it.

before the show and during intermission

     After the show we made our way back to Piccadilly Circus which is where we got off. The munchies hit us so a nearby convenient store was the cure. We picked up a couple of non-American sodas and an unfortunately bland donut. I promised my wife that i would stay in with her since i didn't the first two nights. Any effort to slip in undetected was a barren one. We dressed back down to settle in for what was left of the evening. I was low on socks and boxers so i tried my hand at some sink washing. Practicing before the trip actually came in handy. Some disposable boxers were in my carry on but it wasn't time to tap into those yet. Tomorrow would be our last full day in London.

Day 4: Look mom! Still no jetlag!
     Waking up to a chilly mist in London was as common as seeing a black cab on the street. This never bothered me cause it was part of the UK experience and didn't last all day. I also woke up to perfectly dry laundry. (thanks to the heater) A good chunk of our itinerary was already checked off so the plan was to take our sweet time with the last few attractions. As usual we ordered the same thing at Seymour's sitting at the same table by the window. Raj was the same guy that took care of us also.  I don't even know why i even bothered looking at a menu in the morning. It's like i try to talk myself OUT of the full English breakfast. heh heh. After that we set off for Operation Westminster Abbey part II.

I mistakenly thought there was a 2for1 discount here but no biggie. The Abbey was gorgeous in quite a different way when compared to St Paul's and far older. (we're talkin' 7th century) It was astonishing to be standing in the very place where kings and monarchs were once coronated. Royal weddings took place here. Historical figures call the Abbey their final resting place: Geoffrey Chaucer, Sir Isaac Newton, and Charles Darwin to name a few. What i really loved about this place was the many memorials, mini chapels, and effigies scattered about. 

effigy of Queen Elizabeth I from a post card
I've never seen so many statues in my life! Big ones, little ones...all you had to do was go outside and look at the north entrance. We walked around checking every nook and cranny including the cloisters. This was the only area where photos were permitted.

  St Paul's was classical, full of color, and refined. Westminster Abbey was dark, Gothic, and very historical. It was like two cross town rivals in the same city. Their differences complimented the other. Just before leaving, we had the privilege of accepting holy communion at a half hour service. This was a very special treat for both of us and i couldn't wait to tell our minister back home. Overall, Sarah liked St Paul's better and found it more beautiful. They were both stunning churches but I'm still torn as to which was my favorite.

Sanctuary just outside the Abbey
      After an inspiring morning we checked out the surrounding area and made our way towards Parliament. I yanked Sarah back, who was nearly clipped by a small car as we hesitated to cross the street. Sometimes we'd wait it out at the crosswalk but other times there was a false sense of safety. This was one of those times. To Americans cars here just come from the most unexpected directions. The night we went to Masters Superfish she grabbed my arm and prevented me from stepping into the path of a biker. Trust me when i say i was over this look left, look right crap. She took a seat while i took some pictures along the Westminster Bridge. There were lots of kids around sightseeing in large groups.



Speaking of kids, i couldn't believe that no one wore ball caps here. Maybe in another city? Random thought really. It was time to move on. London is home to free world class museums yet we only visited one. We set out to change that but wanted to grab a bite to eat first. Tottenham Court Rd was our stop so we got off and picked a Japanese fusion place called Hakuba.

 For such a large, stylish looking joint, i was surprised to see a near empty dining room. We split some pork noodles and rice. She had stir fried chicken in peanut sauce. I ordered spicy Thai style wings, and miso soup. Our lunch was pretty good and wasn't that expensive. We had planned a budget before we left but weren't going to see how we did until the entire trip was over. That way we spent more time having fun and less time converting sterling pounds to dollars.

The museum was literally right around the corner. Along the way i encountered a couple that was having an argument. Apparently the misses was tired of having her picture taken every 2 minutes. HAHAHAHA!! That doesn't sound familiar at all! I really tried to take it easy on Sarah and give her a break. I'll admit that it was pretty tough. When something interesting is within range of your viewfinder, naturally you want your wife in the shot. It's a bit more than proving that you were actually there. I dunno. I've seen vacation albums where I'm in maybe 3 pictures. At the same time i understand the frustration of having to stop everything and pose. Your feet hurt, you're cold, you're hungry, whatever. Maybe that was the case with these two? Guess we'll never know.

I didn't do a lot of research on the British Museum before we left. That was probably mistake #1. Mistake #2 was devoting so much emphasis on the Louvre in Paris. You'll find out why later. As i mentioned before admission was free but a couple of pounds are much appreciated. Shortly after walking through the foyer, you come to the center called the Great Court. It had a UFO-like quality about it.


Sarah bought a paper guide for both of us. Our plan was divide and conquer so we split up and decided to meet back at the UFO in 2 hours. Like a moth to light i headed straight for the section on Egypt. It was kind of the starting point as it was very close to the Great Court. I've always found this ancient civilization fascinating and wasn't disappointed. A lot of the stuff in this section was confiscated from Napoleonic France by the British. I enjoyed these crumbling antiquities: busts, sculptures, statues of Pharaohs, etc. Some of it dated back to 1850 BC. 

Egypt and Sudan
I then moved onto the Middle East. The winged lions with human heads were by far my favorite thing in the entire museum. Persia, Mesopotamia, Palestine...they all had reliefs in this wing. It was a massive collection.

you can get a sense for how vast this place was
Persian Bas-relief
       Next, i moved onto Greece and Rome for the classical works. My best efforts were made to avoid spending too much time here. I knew that the Louvre was a Greek heavyweight and didn't want to put get "marbled out". The works here, however, were astonishing. I didn't even realize it happened but an hour had flown by. 

reconstructed temple from present day Turkey
      This is when the paper guide stayed put in my back pocket. I went back to the UFO to see if i could spot Sarah but man, was it crowded. I then walked upstairs and my jaw dropped when i got to the top. Room after room after room stretched back into the distance in 4 directions. The people that were farthest away from me were the size of ants. I had totally underestimated how enormous this museum was. Feeling a bit weary and overwhelmed, i wandered aimlessly through those endless corridors. My mind wandered too: "Old clocks here.... a mummy there....is that Sar-......no that's not her......classical inscriptions.....hmm....that looks like an old pot or something.....is this thing a weapon or-.... ? Basically it all began to run together. This is the point at which a visitor should probably throw in the towel. You could have a week here and still not seen everything.
     There was still a half hour left but i made my way back to the UFO to see if the aliens brought my wife back early. Fortunately they did! She was waiting for me on a bench. Her legs were aching but she was very happy with the ground covered. She recalled 5 floors of exhibits (to my 2) lots of mummies,  and the Rosetta Stone. The ROSETTA STONE!! I missed it!! I walked through Egypt and Sudan like 20 times and still missed it. Oh well! She found Darwin's tomb at St Paul's too, not that this was an Easter Egg hunt.

snuck up from behind
Outside we observed 2 police cards scream by. The sirens were very high pitched, almost ear piercing. The sun was beginning to go down and that's exactly what i wanted. The final attraction together would be the London Eye. Operated by British Airways it was the largest observation wheel in the world when constructed. Sarah didn't want any part of it so we found her a good place to park it indoors.

 We still used the 2for1 discount so she could check out the 4D experience with me; a small theater that showed you panoramic 3D views of London in with special effects. After this she waited for me in the cafe with a magazine as i joined the queue. It didn't take long to board...maybe 10 minutes or so. Once again, i was grateful that this was not peak season. The rotating pods are filled with anywhere from 8 to 20 passengers. I think i was the only one in my pod over 21. They whisk you along inside while it's still moving.

Nonetheless it was an awesome experience. The pods move so slowly that you barely notice you're moving at all. I jockied for position and took tons of photos of Big Ben and Parliament. I could see the other distinguished icons on the skyline, St Peter's in particular. As the sun set my Nikon captured every moment.

 The once rowdy teens were now seated and checking text messages out of apparent boredom. This really worked to my advantage. From start to finish this attraction takes about 30 minutes. (not including the line) Overall the pictures turned out really well. Some of them were on the blurry side but this was remedied by using a faster shutter speed. After it was over i rejoined my wife and discussed a plan for dinner. As we left i gave her unused ticket to a grateful tourist

One of the things we had planned to do early in our stay was to check out a high end department store. Unlike the ones back in the states, these featured food halls. I read that you could buy anything from gourmet truffles to beef tongue sandwiches. I was anxious to have a look at what Brits put in their shopping carts. In addition to the many food items there were also eateries, one of which we would choose for dinner. The first store that came to mind was Harrod's but it wasn't close to our hotel. Liberty was closer but i was looking for something right off Oxford St. We took the tube and got off at Oxford Circus which was less than a mile from our hotel. We found two such stores close to each other: Marks & Spencer and Selfridge's. The facade of Selfridge's resembled a massive Greek temple so we chose that.

outside Selfridge's from Oxford St.
     This place was founded by a visionary who wanted to make shopping an adventure instead of a chore. Emphasis was placed on innovative marketing and the customer experience. In fact, Mr. Selfridge himself is credited with coining the term "the customer is always right". (I didn't find that out until we returned home however)
     At first glance it didn't look any different from a Saks Fifth Avenue or Nordstrom. The women staffing the fragrance department could have passed for super models.


Everything was bright white: the floor, the ceiling, and the columns in between them. Very upscale. Eventually you would come across fancy boxed chocolates which were opposite a short flight of stairs. These led to the food halls. Here it looked like a cross between a food court and a gourmet grocery store.

There were several deli style stations serving pastas, Mediterranean dishes, many kinds of olives, dried meats, and more. I even saw a section that sold only pastries and cupcakes. (a good one to remember) I saw roughly 5 or 6 eateries ranging from Italian to sushi. Something smelled good so i followed my nose to an eatery that simply called itself Salted Beef. That would be my move.

 My sandwich was a blend of salted and roasted beef served with hot English mustard. I ordered it with salt & pepper crisps (chips) and a gherkin (pickle). Sarah had a cheddar and tomato sandwich which she seemed to enjoy. The Brits seemed to like their beverages just slightly chilled. I noticed this everywhere including here. Nonetheless, it was a light yet tasty meal.

     Afterward we took a curious gander at the groceries in the food section. I saw they had Frosted Flakes with Tony the Tiger but here they were called Frosties. The tea section was huge as was to be expected in England. We were both very amused when we came across a section labeled "Foods of America".

"Oh Lord" i thought. Stove Top?...sure...A1 steak sauce?...yes....bacon flavored popcorn?... what the hell??! I don't know anyone that eats this crap! Speaking of bacon they had "American style" in the meat section. Not many strips in a package.
     Before heading back to the hotel i nabbed an iced chocolate cupcake. I would end up saving this for later. Sarah tried to get into the room with her Oyster card. hahaha After several failed attempts she exclaimed "What in the Sam Diggity?" Since we were leaving for Brussels the next morning we had to do some prepacking. She was okay with me going back out so long as i took the prepaid phone with me. I packed up my photo gear and set off.
     Since it was my last night i had to be selective of my final targets and keep an eye on the time. My first stop was a quick bus ride to Hyde Park Corner. The Wellington Arch has an incandescent glow after dark and my long exposures captured it. I got what i came for and swiftly moved onto Westminster. This was my favorite station. It had sliding glass barriers on the platform and the corridors reminded me of a space ship or something.

 I walked briskly along the bridge looking for great views of Big Ben. As i was adjusting my tripod for steadier shots a Prince William type walked up to me very well dressed. He mumbled "Will you go home with me?....I'll pay you." There stood your friend and humble narrator absolutely dumbfounded. "Wh- WHAT??! .....No!!" and with that he was gone. Excellent captures of Parliament from different angles. The huge bell struck 11 times when my work was done here.

 St Paul's was my last stop and of all things I'll miss in London, changing tube lines won't be among them. As was the case most nights the crowds were non-existent. Upon arrival i spent too much time shooting upward at the dome from up close. In hindsight, i should've just crossed Millennium Bridge to get the famous travel guide shot. As i finally made my way in that direction, the lights went out behind me. I turned around and saw that St Paul's was completely dark. Damn! I shoulda remembered this from the 1st night on the embankment. I was really pissed off at myself but tried to make the most of it. There was a section that was still illuminated on one side and those photos came out pretty good. 

who turned out the lights?
I anticipated taking the bus to Marble Arch from here but to my surprise the tube station was still open. It was kinda nice having the whole place to myself. London's Underground proved to be very clean and Not once did i feel unsafe. The only noise was the xerox-like humming coming from the empty escalators.


     My last order of business was a few last images of Marble Arch itself. As it welcomed us in the beginning, it was there at the end. On the way back to the room i picked up a spicy lamb samosa from a corner store. It wasn't that good but expectations were low. The chocolate cupcake from Selfridge's was my saving grace. YUM. It was a very busy but enjoyable visit here. Looking back at the itinerary there were only a few things we didn't do. Afternoon Tea, a cruise on the River Thames, and Tate Modern for example. You can only cram so much in 4 days but i was happy with what we did see. 

What i liked:
- Clean, safe city with very little rubbish, graffiti, or homeless.
- World class museums, most of which are free.
- Seeing people of all races.
- Full English Breakfast and Sunday Roast.
- Loved hearing cockney accents everywhere.

What i didn't like:
- Simply put, London is expensive.

- Tube stations are buried deep under the ground.
- Like NYC, London is in a huge rush.
- I never got used to the traffic patterns.
- No dogs anywhere to be seen.