Thursday, March 24, 2011

Glorious Britain! Part III

The next two days in London were similar to the day before, but with each day a different section of London. Tuesday was east and the Tower of London. This was by far the most highly anticipated venue given its high profile status in The Tudors series. We spent close to 5 hours touring all the different towers (there are several) and getting a personal tour and hearing the various stories from when it was a palace to the most notorious jail. Interesting and spooky fact: Upon Anne Bolelyn's execution, when the ax man held up her severed head, instead of cheering and chanting "Long Live the King!, as the crowd was supposed to do, they all gasped in unison. It is said that her eyes and mouth were still moving as if praying and looking about the crowd! OOOOOOHHHH. We went into towers where they have preserved graffiti etched in by former prisoners, and to the chapel where ex-Queens Anne Bolelyn and Catherine Howard were buried, We saw the AMAZING crown jewels (some of us went around the conveyor more than once).
From the Tower, we walked on to St. Paul's Cathedral (incredible, with the most sophisticated ipod audio tour). From there we crossed the Millennium Bridge and spent the afternoon at the Tate Modern. Of all the museums I have seen, this was quite an interesting one. I thoroughly enjoyed the Picasso exhibit, and seeing Pollack, Miro, Matisse and Warhol. I did not enjoy as much, the exhibits of "bulls-eye made with pebbles", "White Splotch on the Wall" and "Mirror". I actually missed the mirror entirely to which SHM said, "That's because it was a mirror". Right.
Although we were exceptionally tired, we made our way down the Victoria Embankment, mainly on the hunt for a cute pub for some snacks or dinner. We began walking in, away from the river, at the Temple Bar stop and wandered to Rouge Cafe, a very cute little bistro that made us feel like we had jumped the channel and were eating in Paris.
On Wednesday our now bruised feet took us north. We tried again to see Westminster Abbey, and success! Thank goodness because we stayed here about 3 hours. We saw the tombs of half of the British Monarchy: Elizabeth I, Mary I (entombed together, although they were rivals in life). Mary Queen of Scots, Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York, among others. We also toured through "Poet's Corner" to see the tombs and monuments of Lewis Carrol, Henry James, Jane Austen, Chaucer, Handel, and many many others.

From here, we walked north passed the National Gallery, and into the area of Covent Garden. Here we again were transported to Boston. Although this time we are standing in a pedestrian market place: there is a main center where a street performer is doing contortions and magic to the delight of school children on tour. Behind the performer is a large columned building that housed the food stations. The only thing missing were the words "Quincy Market". After a little shopping and a bite for lunch we continued north to the British Museum. Not originally on our itinerary, we added it once we read that it was the oldest museum in the world and home to the Rosetta Stone. How could we not go? Luckily for us, and our feet, the Rosetta Stone was in the "Ancients" exhibit, right on the ground floor, as you enter. We stayed to see the massive Egyptian exhibit as well as bits from the Parthenon. It was all very incredible, very amazing and very old. But on our fourth day of seeing old, incredible, amazing things, we were at our maximum saturation of old, incredible, amazing things. We exited the British Museum and met Briggie for dinner at a bustling restaurant in the theater district called Brown's. Very good, although SUPER busy and our waiter was greatly flustered all the time (we had to ask him three separate times for flatware). Although he did give us complimentary champagne:)
Finally, our great tour ends with Hampton Court. Another highly anticipated stop! We were there for 5 hours and toward the end felt rushed and could have used another hour. Hampton Court was a palace originally built by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Henry VIII's chief advisor), but when he fell out of favor with the King (mainly because he could not get the pope to approve Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon), he "gave" his palace to the King and went to the Tower (although he suspiciously died along the way). The staff was incredibly welcoming and friendly (they held our bags for us, since we were heading straight to the airport). The palace was "interactive" with "Henry VIII" and his courtiers roaming the grounds and doing little presentations in the different halls. We, of course, were most interested in the Tudor section (there is also a section built by William and Mary as well as a "Georgian" section).
We saw the Great Hall of Henry VIII as well as the Royal Chapel. It was just amazing to be standing and walking in the same rooms as all of these historic people! We saw doorways engraved with roses and pomegranates (the symbols of Henry and Katherine). Then, in the Great Hall, that was originally built for Anne Bolelyn, our attention was turned to a wood carving of an H and A intertwined. The hall had been full of these carvings to commemorate the marriage of Henry and Anne, but when she was executed all signs of her were destroyed... except this one carving... ooooohhhhh. In the next grand hall with saw the coat of arms of Jane Seymour decorating the ceiling. So neat.
It was a fantastic way to end our trip. We saw everything we were hoping to see (minus some royals) and more! We can't wait to come back and see more of the countryside!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Glorious Britain! Part II

Monday began with a lesson on British Railway. Our lovely host walked us to our station, Watford Junction, helped us buy Oyster Cards (like a Charlie Card), and instructed us on how to change to the Tube. All went without a hitch for the entire trip! We didn't get lost, or misdirected or confused. It's a very user-friendly system. We did however witness the potential peril of riding the tube. That first day, as we were waiting for our train to pull away from the station, not one but two different people got caught in the train's closing doors. What's even scarier is that it did not seem that the doors had motion sensors, like ours do. They seemed to hit quite hard and take a minute to release. One poor woman, had the door close on her arm, causing her to release her Oyster card and drop it in the gap between the train car and the platform. She and her husband got off the train to try to retrieve the card, and we saw them board our very same train car about 4 stops later. These gaps can range anywhere between a step down of about 4 inches, or a full space of air about half a foot wide. No wonder it's posted everywhere and announced at every station.

We arrive at the Westminster stop, ready to begin our great tour of London. We walk out of the station- Big Ben! We walk across the street to Westminster Abbey... CLOSED! Curses! Tough start. So we continue walking. We walk through the lovely St. James Park, through to Buckingham Palace. We cut over through Knightsbridge to Harrod's and then the Victoria and Albert Museum. We then walk next door to the Natural History Museum because Pablo tells us about its amazing entry way. We follow the crowd in and WOW- it is amazing! It is set up like the galaxy with constellations on the ceiling and an enormous earth that has an escalator that goes up into it. So then you are IN the middle of the earth- so cool! Too bad it wasn't the right entrance. Later that night we checked our tour book and saw that the actual entry way he was talking about is a magnificent, old, gold and intricate ceiling, not the galaxy exhibit. Blast! This museum also had an earthquake exhibit, in which there is a model of a Japanese convenient store where you can stand and feel a real earthquake. Given recent events, this was kind of spooky.
From here we walked up to Kensington Garden which was just lovely. It reminded us of being in Boston Common. Actually, a lot of London reminded us of Boston, like Boston is a mini version of London. I think all of Boston could fit into Hyde Park. The funniest thing in the parks were the large groups of tourists taking pictures of squirrels. Is that another link between Boston and London? Does no one else have squirrels? People were posing with squirrels, trying to feed them. So strange. Meanwhile, we find city bicycles that were FREE for 30 minutes- only 1 pound for 24 hours. Nevermind that it took a good 20 minutes and 3 different people helping us to figure out how to unlock these bikes, we finally did it and rode up and down the park:)
The highlight of Kensington was the palace! Under renovation, it had a special exhibit called "Enchanted Palace". Each of the rooms we went through was designed for a certain princess who lived at the Palace. Each room was also designed by a different artist with a different interpretation. This is the picture from Queen Victoria's room. Other princesses included were Diana, Margaret, Mary, Charlotte and Caroline. Each princess with her own story and with intrigue and secrets.

This was our last stop and we could barely walk another step. Instead of wandering up to Notting Hill, which had been our plan, we walked toward Holland Park, where we were meeting Pabs and Briggie for dinner. We paused at a place called Mall Tavern, and it was heaven! Quiet, with cheap bar snacks (soda bread and butter for 2 pounds, Dorset Meatballs for 3), and chill music. It was just what we needed to rest our weary feet.
From here we met up with Pabs and Briggie at the restaurant Belvedere, which was very lovely and fancy. The perfect end to our second day in London!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Glorious Britain! Part I

We have been back from England for a couple of days now. It has taken a thorough recovery from the 5 days of intensive walking in non-supportive shoes. For the third morning in a row, I have woken up on my own before 8:00am, which I guess is a good habit to start. Today, I am sitting at my kitchen table, drinking newly purchased English Breakfast Tea out of my newly purchased William and Kate Royal Wedding Commemorative Mug and reminiscing with SHM about our fabulous trip.
The trip began with a very easy flight, direct, to Heathrow, with a car picking us up. Everything was arranged by our fabulous host, Brigitte, who booked us dinners, researched trains, and did any other leg work we needed. We arrived in London and were shuttled to Pablo's (Brigitte's paramour) house in Fulham, a section of London equivalent to Brookline. The scenery throughout London is much like what we see on TV. It was so realistic, that it almost looked like a caricature of itself. Skinny little streets packed with brick or stone row houses and little biddy cars. I was assured that all roads are two-way, but I really don't see how that's possible.
For our first dinner in London we went to a swanky little place around the corner from Pablo's called the Sands End, confirmed to be a watering hole of Prince Harry, but no sightings today (in fact, no sightings at all of any members of the royal family. Very disappointing). This spot proved to be quite lively. It was so loud that it was easier to observe other patrons than to talk to each other. At one point we were all trying to speak, when what appeared to be a ball of fire came flying in, through SHM's hair, and landed on the table. It was a lit match, catapulted by a bloke at the table next to us, who was quite inebriated, but still quite stunned (and I think a little proud) that it had made it all the way to our table. He apologized profusely, and SHM, and his hair, remained nicely intact.
Sunday morning we arose bright and early and set out to Stonehenge. Pablo graciously drove us. The weather started out pouring rain, but cleared quickly, and we luckily saw no more rain the rest of our trip. Stonehenge is literally in the middle of rolling fields, although back in the day, it would have been in the middle of a forest. You can see it quite early from the road, and from that large distance, it looks a bit small with a thin line of people who look like ants circling like satellites in orbit. We arrived and received a free audio tour. Up close, the stones are really something. Gigantic and looming, and we find out there is at least 10 feet worth of stone underground. Incredible! We learned about the construction, about the design, theories as to what it was used for, but two questions remain unanswered: WHY? and by WHO? Very mysterious and intriguing.
From Stonehenge, we continue our road trip to Windsor Castle, royal residence when the Queen is on holiday from Buckingham Palace. The Castle was built after William the Conqueror invaded around 1066, and is the birth place of many monarchs as early as Edward III in 1312. The grounds and the interior are all incredible. Despite quite a devastating fire in 1992, the Castle has been kept in amazing condition (and was renovated after the fire using Medieval techniques to keep authenticity). The slight disappointment was the fact that we couldn't go into St. George's Chapel as it was closed for Sunday worship. Inside is the tomb of Henry VIII and his favorite wife Queen Jane Seymour.

It was a packed first day, and Brigitte and Pablo were wonderful tour guides. The next day begins our adventures as we navigate Central London on our own.