Sunday, November 13, 2011


The Fabulous Tales of my London Adventure


The London Eye
Let me start by saying that I have been to Heathrow airport three times, and that this is the first time I got to leave the airport and check out the city.  So excited!  This first thing I went to see in London was Westminster Pier and the surrounding attractions – Big Ben, Parliament, the London Eye, and Westminster Abbey.  I wanted to really feel like I was in London, so I went for the big tourist attractions first.  I even took my picture in one of those red phone booths that no one uses anymore.  The whole way there, the voice on the tube kept insisting that we, “Mind the gap!” which I was totally excited to hear.  The gap between the train and the platform is actually really big in some stations.  You actually do have to be careful, or mindful…
"Mind the gap!"
Big Ben Clock Tower
Only residents of the UK can go on a tour of the Big Ben, so I just looked at the outside (left).  My first impression of London was that all the architecture was larger than life.  The buildings are so colossal that they exceed the range of my camera lens.  I found myself continually pausing to gaze upwards at the buildings while wandering around.

It has been said that Boston is the most European city in the US.  I'll explain this in another post.  In any case, since I heard this, and later agreed with it (minus baseball), I have been wondering what its European counterpart is.  I'm pretty sure it's London.  Rather than taking stereotypical travel photos of picturesque winding roads and laundry hanging over canals, like I frequently do, London presented me an with opportunity to focus on seeing theater performances, shopping in Harrods, sampling restaurants.  In short, it just was more like home.

Before launching into my day-by-day itinerary, I want to share my first impressions of London.  I do not mean to stereotype anything; rather, I am just trying to make sense of what I experienced.  So please, realize the sweeping generalizations below are simply my personal impressions from five days in London.

Westminster Abbey
An example of "larger than life" architecture.
Throughout my 5-day visit, I found London to be very different from the other major European cities with which I am familiar: Madrid, Paris, Barcelona, Lisbon, Rome, etc. in the respect that London seemed more modern, cleaner, and more spacious.  The city limits of London are vast. I spent countless hours that week on the tube traveling from place to place.  Even the individual streets have towering monuments that make you feel tiny.  City life excites me, so I didn't feel overwhelmed.  Quite differently, Spain, for example, has little, winding streets all over the place.  This makes for sort of an older-world feel even though Spain is definitely a modern country.  For me, London has a sort of elegance (more realistic than the chic feel of Paris) - it's more than giant buildings; the people seem polished.  Well, maybe it's just the accent and the well-tailored trench coats nearly everyone wore.  Things are glorious, yet a bit more reserved and than in the US.  I really liked London.  Definitely makes my top 10 travel list.

Afternoon Tea at City Café Westminster
On the first afternoon in London, I went to try out the traditional afternoon tea at City Café Westminster in the Mint Hotel.  My Earl Grey tea came with an assortment of scones, mini-sandwiches, and a cupcake.  Elle explained to me that the clotted cream and jelly were for the scones.  Clotted cream tastes like a mix between butter and cream cheese.  It’s savory rather than sweet, great on warm scones, and it’s probably really unhealthy.  The afternoon tea was really decadent – we each got a double-tiered platter of tea food.  The best part was that the flavor of each piece of food was distinct: sweet, savory, tart, scone-ish.

That evening, I met up with an RA buddy, Ian, and some of his friends from BU's London program.  They all have internships with Parliament, which is pretty cool.  BU is really good at finding great internships for students studying abroad.

We went to a pub near Parliament, and they explained to me that London Pride was one of the most popular brands of beer to order in London.  I didn't try it, but I enjoyed chatting with them through the evening.


Platform 9 3/4
In the morning, I went straight to Kings Cross Station to take a picture at Platform 9 3/4, which is famous because of the Harry Potter series.  There was even a cart disappearing into the wall set up for tourists.  Afterwards, we went to the Tower Bridge.
Tower Bridge of London

Following that, we toured Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.  Today's Globe Theatre is almost an exact replica of the original, right down to the wooden pegs.  Our guide was animated, dramatic, knowledgeable, and basically everything you would want from a guide.  She told us that the very convincing marble pillars on the stage were actually made of wood, which had been painted to look like marble.

Outside of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Wood column, painted to look like marble.
Back in the day, you could eat, talk, and do pretty much whatever you wanted while seeing a show.  To preserve the original atmosphere, all of this is still allowed during performances.  The only restrictions are smoking and bringing in glass containers.  Lights are kept on during performances, which makes it so that performers can see the audience members' reactions.  As a result, it's much more interactive than a regular theater experience.  Our guide told us that in Shakespeare's time, the Globe Theatre was outside the borders of London's original city limits because the "sinful" theatre experience was indulgent and pleasureful, and a group of "hard-working Puritans" lived across the Thames River (pronounced "tems"), inside the city's limits.

Tower of London
After the tour, we headed over to the Tower of London, where we saw the crown jewels and learned about old English torture practices.  The crown jewels are kept in a vault which is guarded by several 2,000 kg doors.
Walking through the gallery, I kept thinking, "All the diamonds, pearls, emeralds, etc. on these crowns are real.  Whoa."  There was also a sword and there were a bunch of gold serving pieces.

Different Uniforms

Through the years, the Tower of London was a place where particularly "dangerous" prisoners were sent to be stored or eventually killed.  We saw exhibits about torture and descriptions of who was kept there.  Some people who were kept there were competitors for the throne, and therefore deemed threatening.  One of them was in there for so long that she carved graffiti all over the stone walls of her containment chamber.

Also at the Tower, we met some guards who explained to us that the pattern of buttons on their uniforms is used to indicate where they're from, and that other parts of their uniform indicate their rank.


Sunday was the first of three days during which I would be on my own traveling around the city.  I began the morning bright and early by going to Abbey Road crossing and Abbey Road Studios, where The Beatles recorded their music.  Fortunately, since I was traveling alone, I found four people dressed up like The Beatles, and three agreed to take a picture with me in the street just like The Beatles' photo.  Abbey Road Studios is closed to the public, and there are no tours.
Abbey Road Crossing
Sitting on the Victoria Monument fountain
My feet are the ones on the left.
From Abbey Road, I went to Charing Cross (pronounced "chair-ing") and then walked over to Buckingham Palace to see the Changing of the Guard.  The crowd of people that turned up to see the change was huge.  People were everywhere, though you couldn't see much of the ceremony unless you were right up against the main gates of the palace.  Sitting with my feet dangling in the Victoria Monument fountain, just above the water, I thought I had a pretty decent viewing spot.

Sitting in the Victoria Monument fountain
in front of Buckingham Palace

The new guards march in through the gates very formally, they do a ceremonial change, and then the guards to be relieved march out of the palace gates and around the fountain.  There's a marching band that goes with them too.  The crowd watching was very multicultural; people around me were speaking so many different languages.

Trafalgar Square

After, I went to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square (pronounced "tra-FAHL-gar"), and was super excited to find two of Monet's Japanese Bridge paintings on display, and Van Gogh's sunflowers!  As usual, I
Countdown to London 2012
Trafalgar Square
 didn't spend much time viewing the religious art, and instead headed for the Impressionist paintings.  I wondered why Van Gogh only signed "Vincent," without his last name, on the sunflowers.  I still think it's cool that Monet's paintings become clearer as you back away from them, due to his failing eye sight.  Worked great for me with my unfortunately persisting eye injury.  Also in Trafalgar Square was the official countdown clock to the beginning of the 2012 Olympic Games in London.  Omega is the official time keeper for this.

Revolution Burger
Jamie's Italian in Covent Garden
Later, I hopped back on the underground, and resurfaced at Covent Garden.  The goal of my Covent Garden trip, surprisingly, was not shopping. I wanted to eat at Jamie's Italian.  The chef, Jamie Oliver, has a TV show called Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution, on which he goes into schools at makes their lunches healthier and tastier.  He works with communities on eating responsibly.  In some communities and school districts, he meets a lot of resistance, probably because people are set in their ways.  But, his message is important, and the food he cooks on his show looks amazing, so I when I saw the Revolution Burger from the TV show on his menu, I knew I had to order it.  The burger was about 6 inches tall - there were layers of lettuce, bean sprouts, chopped, flavorful vegetables; a viscous, white sauce; and of course, the hamburger.  Delicious.  I don't usually order dessert, but I couldn't resist the lemon curd tart, dusted in pistachio bits, and topped with three cranberries.  So, so good.  I'm pretty sure a portion of each sale goes to his TV show.

Lemon Curt Tart
Jamie's Italian in Covent Garden
Apple Market in Covent Garden
Covent Garden itself is a neat area.  It's sort of like a giant version of Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market in Boston.  Covent Garden has the Jubilee and Apple Markets, as well as a third I think I missed.  In these markets, vendors sell crafts, wall-hangings, scarves, random things, etc.  There's even a fortune teller.  This isn't a flea market though, it's more upscale - there are permanent shops interspersed within the vendors.  Outside the square with the markets are a bunch of great stores - Campers, Gap, Banana Republic, Miss Sixty, Pepe Jeans London, Zara, Clarks, and a Freed store.  There are also a bunch of nice restaurants, and musicians singing/playing by the restaurants.  A bit farther out is Chinatown, which was bursting with Hello Kitty merchandise, and beyond that is one of the theater districts.  I intended to catch an evening performance of Jersey Boys, but I mixed up the dates, and found that it wasn't playing that night.

No big deal, I went to check out Harrods, the famous luxury department store instead.  It was closed, but the outside was outlined in lights.  I'm not sure if Harrods always looks like a castle at night (because of the lights), or it they just put up Christmas lights way too early.  I mean, they definitely don't celebrate Thanksgiving, so why wait?

DAY 4     
On Halloween, I woke up dark and early to go on a morning tour of Stonehenge.  Somehow, between the change of time zones, changing my watch but not my alarm clock, and possibly changing something the wrong direction, I arrived for my 8 am tour at about 5:30 am.  Should have noticed it was dark outside.  No big deal though, I went to Starbucks for breakfast.  Starbucks is as prevalent in London as it is in the US - there's one on every corner.  The only difference is that it costs more to eat in than the take your food with you, which is annoying.
The bus ride to Stonehenge was about 2 hours long, and we had 1.5 hours to explore the site.  It was nice to see the very green countryside.  Once we arrived, we were given audio guides.  I learned that about 1/3 of each enormous stone is underground for support.  Though the exact purpose for Stonehenge is unknown, people have noticed that it functions as a sort of calendar since the sun shines through a specific stone arch for each of the twelve months.  The arches are also aligned with the position of the sun on the Summer and Winter Solstices.

Think of the people in this picture as scale bars.  The stones of Stonehenge are really, really tall.

One of the great mysteries of Stonehenge, which also remains unknown, is how the stones were brought to the site, and how the top rim of stones were hoisted to their resting places.  The audio guide speculated that people may have used some sort of pulley system, combined with an inclined plane, to drag the top stones up, and place them on top of the others.

The audio guide told us that the word "stonehenge" means "stone hanging," and that there were other stonehenges built in prehistoric times.  I think this one, from about 3000 BC, is the only one still standing.  The site really is mysterious because it raises questions in the mind of the visitor.  You find yourself in the middle of fairly empty, rolling, green hills of Wiltshire, and all of the sudden there's this huge, double ring of stones.  It's unusual, puzzling, and magnificent.
Back in London, I hopped back on the tube and went to check out the Tate Modern, a contemprary and modern art museum.  To be honest, the building is ugly - it kind of looks like you're walking into a warehouse at a construction site.  The art inside though, is thought provoking, in that it presents other ways to look at the world.  Things are rearranged in a way you're not accustomed to seeing them.  Example on the left.

In the evening, I strolled over to Piccadilly Circus.  I've been told that Piccadilly Circus is like Times Square, but that the people have much more pleasant accents.  I think that's more or less a fair assessment.  Anyways, I was deciding between seeing Les Miserables at Queens Theatre or Mamma Mia at the Prince of Wales Theatre.  Les Mis is probably my all-time favorite musical, but I just wasn't channeling my inner French Revolution anguish, so I opted for Mamma Mia.  I wanted to see a show I hadn't seen before, and I really enjoyed this performance.  The music filled the theater with an energy that literally made it feel like an ABBA concert during some of the songs.  It was totally fun.  All around, I appreciated the superior quality of acting, singing, and dancing.


Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey
main arch on the facade of the main entrance
On my last morning in London, I toured Westminster Abbey and ventured into Harrods.
Built in the 10th century, Westminster Abbey is daunting in size, but intricate and exquisite in design.  The staff emphasized that Westminster Abbey is, above all, a functioning church - there's a school and a choir, and there are services held each day.  For visitors who want to pray, they open special chapels which are restricted areas from general visits.  Each hour, a one-minute prayer is read over a speaker system.  The prayer they read while I was there was about accepting and welcoming other people from different places.  It seemed appropriate since the visiting crowd was very international.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey belongs to the Church of England.  To be honest, I don't exactly know what that entails since I don't know much about Christianity, Catholicism, or anything related, but I can still appreciate the art and history in the abbey.  My pamphlet says that the Church of England and Westminster Abbey became independent of the Roman Catholic Church and the Pope in the 16th century, and that services were then held in English instead of Latin.  Would you believe that Westminster Abbey has a coffee shop?  Maybe temples would be more popular if they served coffee too.  Coffee & Conversation?  Coffee with the Cantor?

Anyways, Westminster Abbey was filled with tombs of royals and other important people, including poets and scientists.  I was surprised to find that Newton and Darwin were buried (entombed?) in the abbey.  One of the most poignant tombs in the abbey is that of the unidentified soldier.  He is buried there to represent all the UK's soldiers who die in wars, and his tomb is supposed to bring closure and comfort to family members who don't know if their own family members made it out of wars alive or not.

Also in Westminster Abbey, is the Coronation Chair, where new monarchs are ceremoniously crowned.  What a cool thing to see!  There's a poet's corner, which has tombs of many dead poets.  Though Shakespeare isn't buried there, there is a dedication to him.  Apart from that, the soaring, vaulted ceilings were incredible, the many crystal chandeliers were sparkly as ever, and the stained glass windows were fabulous and colorful.

No photos are allowed inside Westminster Abbey.

Harrods on Brompton Road
I couldn't believe that I'd been in London for almost five full days without going into Harrods.  Finally, the time had come!  Before going to London, my mom had said to me, "Harrods is really famous.  You should buy something there if you can afford anything."  Let me put that comment into perspective.  Harrods is more than just Alexander McQueen, Burberry, Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, Gucci, Dolce & Gabana, etc.  While shopping, I noticed an art gallery in the middle of the store, and thought to myself, "Oh, cool.  You can browse through a museum while trying on shoes."  Not so much.  I wandered into the "museum" and realized they were selling sculptures and signed prints by Picasso, Matisse, and other really famous artists.  From what I saw, they ranged from £30.000 to £100.000.  So no, I did not buy anything at Harrods.

Egyptian Escalator at Harrods
No worries though, my shopping experience was still fun there.  Harrods has "rooms of luxury," which sell purses and handbags, along with watches and jewelry.  To go between the floors, you can ride on the "Egyptian Escalator."  One floor up, they sell incredible designer clothing.  If I ever get invited to the Oscars, this is definitely where I'll get my dress.  It might have to be shortened though since the Harrods dress manikins are almost seven feet tall.  No wonder they look thin.

Waterford Crystal Room at Harrods
Anyone need a chandelier?
Since Harrods is filled with both people who actually shop there and tourists who just want to see the store, they give you a map of the five-story building when you come in.  I appreciated that even if they're reasonably sure that you're a student, and not about to purchase a signed Picasso print, their customer service is still outstanding.  Beyond clothes, Harrods has an ice cream parlour (spelled with an extra "u" of course), a pizzeria, a tea room, and a Moroccan section which has Moroccan food, furniture, and clothing.  Speaking of house items - there's an entire room of Waterford Crystal.  It's pretty fantastic...and very sparkly.

While strolling around, it occurred to me that Harrods, of all places, must sell narrow shoes.  Narrow shoes for somewhere between £300 and £1.500.  I inquired about this with a sales person, who tole me that they do have some styles in narrows, and that they would be happy to special order any shoe I wanted directly from the maker in a narrow.  Finally! Success!  Mom - This could be the solution to the narrow foot curse.  In the room of the extra-glamorous shoes, they had a heel by Stuart Weitzman, which was worn on the Red Carpet, and completely covered in rhinestones.  On the second thought, they may have actually been diamonds.

Outside Harrods
Did you know that Harrods has a gift shop? What kind of department store has a gift shop?  Obviously the kind where the merchandise is so expensive that you get a pile of tourists who want to buy something but can't.  The waterproof, plastic bags that have the Harrods logo, which I've seen tons of people carryone on the metro in Madrid, are about £50.  I like the Burberry items better, so I didn't buy either.

I like to imagine myself shopping in more than just the gift shop at Harrods someday when I'm (hopefully) successful at whatever I'll be doing.  Besides, I have to go back and order those narrow shoes!

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