I’m sorry I haven’t updated in a week but this entry is quite long and I had a lot of pictures to sort through. Last weekend I went to London in the first of many necessary trips to Europe’s most known destinations. It was a relatively simple trip and since I was traveling with 12 other people, there was some adventure guaranteed. We all met at the Edinburgh bus terminal to board our leisurely 10 hour drive to central London. On the way into the terminal, not 20 minutes into our travels, a fellow passenger dropped her luggage down the escalator into my back. Luckily, I had my big backpack (which proved to be the lightest packing job of the bunch) which cushioned the blow. We beat the bus to our gate and had time to enjoy a meal at the eateries provided by vending machines. Included in this lovely assortment of crisps (British word for potato chips) was the exotic “Roast Ox” flavor. I’ve been adventurous in my eating up to this point, but I must admit I passed on this opportunity, but I’m sure I’ll have the opportunity again.
The bus ride was a grueling experience, but that was to be expected with any overnight transportation. Instead of taking a bus directly to London as our tickets promised, we were routed to Glasgow (a hour going west away from London) and then boarded a different bus full of people impatient to leave and wary to give up the seat next to them. I ended up in the last row sitting straight up all night next to 4 other people. I took some herbal sleeping pills and started to drift off to sleep. No sooner had I begun to blink slower, I was awoken by David the bus attendant/czar (I only know his name because we were graced with his presence again on the return trip). We clambered off the bus to the truck stop at 2 am for no apparent reason and then re-boarded more groggy than before. The strategy apparently worked as everyone quieted down and got some sleep. I’d estimate about 3 hours for me and from everyone’s cheery faces when I arrived, I’d say I got lucky.
We arrived near Victoria Station at 7 am. Bleary eyed, grumpy and generally confused. After much deliberation as to how to avoid the £4 Underground fee, we eventually gave up. The walk to our hostel would have apparently taken 2 hours to walk and the longer we waited around the more Londoners came out of the woodwork for the morning rush hour. As we individually struggled to figure out the ticket machines, we were approached by a metro worker concerned at the mass of tourists hogging the machines. I assured him we were simply waiting on “that guy” to which he happy responded, “You have a guide? Fantastic!” Little did he know that we were more than inept at figuring out the system and I have no idea how we ended up at our hostel an hour later. We had booked an entire room to ourselves and avoided the usual awkward fanfare of sharing a room with strangers. The hostel itself was incredibly nice and located in Holland Park, just a short trip from central London.
The first day was a whirlwind of tourism and an attempt to sustain my sleep-deprived body. It started with a hearty (in the cholesterol sense) “Full English” breakfast that included a sausage, a few strips of bacon, baked beans, two eggs, mushrooms and three pre-buttered pieces of toast. It was exactly what I needed. Since it was barely 9 am, the four people I had broken off from the main group with decided to walk and wander towards the sights instead of head back underground. It ended up being a wise decision.
We crossed the street and wandered along a path into a park, completely oblivious to the fact we were entering the expansive Hyde Park. Our first stop was at a beautiful old building which was clearly identified as a palace. This turned out to be Kensington Palace, most know for being the former residence of Princess Diana. We decided against a tour and followed the Princess Diana Memorial Walk, past the Princess Diana Memorial Playground and ended up at the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. Undeterred by the sheer amount of history, statues and memorials, we trekked onward through the park. I think it’s safe to say that London has the largest area of downtown real estate dedicated to park lands of any major city I’ve visited, according to it’s website, the eight “Royal Parks” of London take up about 5,000 acres. The next path we followed had a huge horse path with a biking and running path next to it. It’s only after looking it up that I realize that was another historic location called, the Rotten Row.
After continuing to wander down any path that looked appealing, we ended up (unbeknownst to us) in the park next to Buckingham Palace.
As we strolled along, we noticed people running towards a swelling crowd. We had no idea what was going on and instinctively picked up our pace. As we peered over a little wall, we realized we had stumbled upon the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. A huge crowd was gathered and we scampered to find a vantage point.
In the flurry of excitement and camera phones held aloft, we ran into the larger contingent of our traveling group. After some hurried group photos we tried to stay together and escape unscathed as the Bobbies did their best to contain the bulk of the day’s tourists. I was jostled to one side of the road as others were held back to let the Blues and Royals through. We got to see some of the ceremony, though as the excitement died down we quickly made our way out of the area to further avoid the crowds. We continued down a long boulevard to Trafalgar Square to meet some friends studying in London. We waited to meet them on the steps of the National Gallery and enjoyed the hordes of pigeons scrambling for crumbs. Our next stop was lunch, which for most was a famous Fish and Chips shop, but as I’ve already enjoyed (read: hated) the experience of fried cod with “chips,” I opted for a sandwich stop across the street.
Our next stop was the River Thames and onward to Parliament. There isn’t much to say about the journey itself, so I think pictures can tell the story better. Parliament is big. The London Eye looks like a big bicycle wheel. There was a memorial to the Battle of Britain that I loved. It is generally a pretty posh area. “Regal” also seems to be a fitting word.
Following our trip to the major sites, we headed back to the National Gallery and got to see a number of famous paintings. Among the array of Monet, Rembrandt and co., I found the most interesting image to be “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey” by Paul Delaroche from 1883 because it was so painstakingly detailed and the expressions were striking. We tired quickly and one of my friends even fell asleep on a bench in the gallery. This was a sign that our day was coming to a close. That night we tried some pubs, but generally just hit the hay early.
The next day we woke up to catch the free breakfast at our hostel and dashed off to the big market someone had told us about. I hadn’t understood that this was the market in London. We walked through the posh Chelsea and Notting Hill neighborhoods to get to our destination, the Portobello Road. The Saturday Market is a tradition going back hundreds of years and since the 1960s, it has become a hub for antiques. In addition to it’s long stretches of ancient prints or metal working stalls, there are dozens of farmers selling their produce. All the while, hundreds of people clambered for the choicest grub or paraded up and down the avenue in an attempt to socialize. Some even set up stations for crepes or paella which drench the area in alluring smells.
After spending the morning at the market, we took a double decker bus back to the center of town. One interesting point about public transportation in London is that people bring their dogs on board and often play music from cell phones or other devices through little stereos. The result is a cacophony of terrible treble-filled sound whenever you board a bus. We decided to check out the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge so we meet up with the larger group of friends around dinnertime.
The various exhibits inside the Tower of London included an extensive collection of crown jewels and bizarre weapons. The collection included rarities like the 16th century “Holy Water Sprinkler” and a studded shield with a hidden space for a gun barrel. It also featured the original suit of armor of Henry VIII, which to say the least, was a crowd pleaser. From among the hushed chuckles, one man exclaimed, “Whoa, no wonder he had so many wives!” This prompted a swift slap and embarrassed tug from his wife and explosive laughter from his kids.
We spent most of our day traveling to and slowly exploring the Tower of London and surrounding areas, so by the time we got into the exhibit of the weaponry, it was almost closing time. After shuffling out of the castle, if you can call it that, we headed back to our hostel and got a fancy Thai dinner. We went out to a club for the afterwards and ended up staying out until almost 5 am. I won’t say much about the evening since this is intended for family and friends, but let me just say this: the cover was 10 pounds, there were no lights on the dance floor (picture a basement with a lot of sweaty people during a blackout), the music was provided by the 49th best techno DJ in the world (translation: the worst DJ I’ve ever witnessed) and I was frantically grabbed by a couple on the dance floor who asked me, “Do you have any drugs?!” After escaping the club we tracked down a way to get home on the bus and spent the next hour waiting and sitting on crowded buses. The next morning we got up early so we could check out, clearly, our final day would not be as energetic as our first two.
The next day we went to the huge British Museum and explored a fraction of the exhibits before people got bored. One surprising thing about the museum is that you could take pictures, even with a flash. I thought this actually detracted from the experience because everyone was scurrying around to get photos of everything instead of following the usual strolling museum pace. But of course, I’m guilty of taking a few photos myself.
After the museum we tracked down lunch at a small Chinese place and took the opportunity to recuperate our dwindling stores of energy. Our next objective was to meet up with the group again at the Tate Modern where our friends had been reveling in the introspective urinals and structural building faults labeled as art which can only be successfully delivered by a modern art museum. In one exhibit a huge theater was dedicated to giving the patron the experience of being rolled down a New York City street inside of a trash can, complete with sound and spinning visuals. Needless to say, we didn’t last long here. We crossed the Millennium Bridge, found a cheap place to eat, tracked down the bus terminal and settled in for an overnight bus trip back to Edinburgh. During that trip, most of you were watching the Superbowl, but on that historic evening we were nodding off to sleep after a draining but eventful weekend.