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September 12th 2006
Published: February 8th 2009
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On our first trip to Europe together, we traveled to England, Wales, and Paris over the course of three weeks during September 2006. While in England, we spent one full week in London, and also six days in the countryside visiting Bath, the Cotswolds, Stratford-upon-Avon, Stonehenge, and Warwick. During our one day in Wales, we managed to see the Wye River Valley (Chepstow, Monmouth, Tintern Abbey) and Cardiff. We then traveled down to Paris via the Eurostar and stayed for seven days seeing most of the major sights in central Paris and also spending day trips at Versailles, Fontainebleau, Chartres, and Paris Disneyland. I did not write a day by day account of this trip, so instead, I will provide a brief summary of the places we saw and things we did. This entry covers the first week of our trip in London.

Lodging: While in London, we chose to stay at the Lime Tree Hotel based on the positive accolades it received from the travel guru Rick Steves. We paid £120 per night during our eight night stay, which equated to approximately $215 USD per night. In hindsight, this amount was far too much, but this was back in our novice travel days so we thought we were getting a fair deal. The hotel was located in the Belgravia neighborhood, near Victoria station. While the neighborhood was nice enough and had the local flavor we were looking for, the walking distance to the tube station was quite long at 15 minutes. The interior of the hotel was fine; the room had been recently renovated, and although it had one of the tiniest bathrooms ever, it still functioned adequately enough for our needs. We also received a daily traditional breakfast with our room rate. The hotel staff was very friendly and accommodating, and especially helpful with a doctor recommendation when I came down with horrid tonsillitis (more on that later). Overall, we wouldn't stay here again for two main reasons; the price (we now try to keep all of our accommodations when traveling between $100 to $150 per night) and secondly, for the far distance to the tube stop. If you don't mind a long walk and if the price doesn't bother you, then I would definitely recommend staying here.

Noteworthy restaurant: Oliveto: We obviously ate at many restaurants during our week in London, however, Oliveto stands out as being the most memorable meal. This restaurant was located just a short walk from our hotel in the Belgravia neighborhood. The prices at this place were quite reasonable by London standards, and as a result, the restaurant was always jam-packed with locals. Oliveto offers authentic Italian fare such as the thin crust pizza, pasta and the best panna cotta we have ever consumed in our entire lives!

Thames River Cruise: On our first day in London, the very first thing we did was board a boat through City Cruises and traveled down the Thames River to Greenwich. Seeing London from the vantage point of the boat provided a great introduction to the city's major sights including the London Eye, The Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Saint Paul's Cathedral, Shakespeare's Globe, etc. While we were both quite jet lagged, we immensely enjoyed watching London pass us by as we sat on the upper deck of the boat.

Greenwich: Greenwich is located within south-east London, but is actually a either a 50 minute boat ride on the Thames River or a 20 minute tube ride away from central London. Greenwich is known as England's maritime capital and is also famous for giving it's Royal Observatory, from which all time is measured. Since we knew we would most likely be completely exhausted on our first day in London, we opted to spend the day in Greenwich instead as it's sights did not require immense amounts of analyzing or thinking. As a result, we were able to enjoy our time at a very leisurely pace. While in Greenwich, we stopped at the Cutty Sark . This former tea clipper first launched in 1869 and is the only remaining original clipper ship from the 1800's. Afterward, we walked to the Old Royal Naval College, which is home to the beautiful baroque Painted Hall and Chapel, both of which were designed by the famous Sir Christopher Wren. We also eventually made it to the Royal Observatory Greenwich, which is located on the prime meridian (0 degrees longitude), and thus, the point from which all time is measured. Did you ever wonder where the acronym GMT came from? Well, it stands for Greenwich Mean Time and it is here in London where the concept of measuring time all began. Our last stop in Greenwich was at Trafalgar Tavern, which is most famously known as being the place where Charles Dickens frequented. The interior of the building was decorated and finely preserved in a gorgeous Regency style. Unfortunately, the service here sucked as it took nearly an hour for us to receive our meal. This was quite strange as when we first arrived, there was only one other couple in the restaurant. Somehow, a massive tour group that arrived 20 minutes AFTER we placed our order all received their food before we did. This place caters to the tour groups, and I definitely would only recommend a visit to peek inside the interior, but don't stay for lunch.

Westminster Abbey: This was the first major site we toured in central London. In addition to paying the entrance fee, we also opted to participate in one of the verger-led tours. I cannot recommend highly enough that all who visit this church should participate in this tour. The guide was so insightful and full of so many interesting facts and tidbits about the history of this nearly 800 year old abbey. Because of the tour, we were able to enter several areas of the abbey that were normally off limits to other visitors. For me personally, being able to walk in the same footsteps of so many different famous people from the last 800 years was truly amazing. This church has seen so much; the coronation ceremonies of all English and British monarchs since 1066 (with the exception of Edward V and Edward VIII, who did not have coronations), the final resting place of 17 monarchs, and the funeral of Princess Diana, just to name a few. This is the type of place where one can truly feel the history that echoes permanently between the walls of the abbey.

Houses of Parliament Tour: Instead of just viewing the Houses of Parliament from it's exterior, we thought it would be interesting and educational to participate in a guided tour of the House of Commons and House of Lords. Lucky for us, tours of the building were only offered to oversea visitors in August and September, so our timing worked out perfectly. The tour took us through just a few of the 1,100 rooms that make up the Palace of Westminster. A majority of the building dates from the 19th century, but a few of the original historic buildings still survive today, including Westminster Hall (erected in 1097) and the Jewel Tower (built around 1365). While the tour was quite informative, we were both practically falling asleep half-way through as it was only the second day of our trip and we were still quite jet-lagged.

Cabinet War Rooms: Both having a huge interest in WWII, I knew that the Cabinet War Rooms were one of the attractions that were a must see for us. The Cabinet War Rooms were once the underground headquarters of the British government during WWII. The complex had a total of 27 rooms which were used from 1939 to 1945. All of the rooms within the complex have been left exactly as they appeared in 1945. We opted to purchase one of the audio guides based on the recommendations from our guidebook, which was right on. It was so fascinating to be able to see the "nerve center" of the British government's fight against the Nazis up close as the complex has been virtually unchanged since the war ended.

London Eye: Now considered one of London's defining landmarks and one of it's most popular tourist attractions, this giant Ferris wheel became a permanent fixture of London in 2002 after it's rental contract expired and London agreed to be it's forever home. Being first time visitors to the city, we of course paid the ridiculous sum to ride around in one of the air-conditioned capsules (which can hold up to 25 people) for 30 minutes. Our ride began just as the sun was setting, so by the time our capsule approached the half-way mark at the top, we had an amazing view of the London skyline at dusk. Unfortunately, our camera wasn't cooperating during our visit, so I don't have any good photos to share.

Shakespeare's Globe: While planning our trip to London, I had wanted Mike and I to be able to see at least one of the numerous live plays that can be found throughout the city. There was of course, a ton of options, but we agreed upon the open-air theater at Shakespeare's Globe, located in the borough of Southwark. The playhouse opened in 1997 and is a reconstruction of the Globe Theater, which was used by Shakespeare's playing company, the Lord Chamberlain's Men in the early 1600's. We purchased tickets to Antony and Cleopatra, which cost £20 per ticket (approximately $36 USD per ticket at the time). While the theater had lots of interesting detail and character, we both had a difficult time hearing and seeing the actors, which was quite disappointing. In addition, I began to feel very sick while at the show, so we actually ended up leaving early, much to the shock of several of the theater staff. In my defense, however, I was not over exaggerating my symptoms, as I was actually coming down with what I did not yet know was lovely tonsillitis. If we were to see another shot at the Globe, I would instead purchase tickets in the "Yard" which is standing room only, but costs just £5 each, and offers an up-close view of the stage and actors.

British Museum: One of London's many numerous museums, but definitely it's most famous, this museum is one of the largest in the world and was established back in 1753. While entrance to the museum is free, we decided to purchase tickets to a 90 minute "Highlight Tour", which at the time cost £7 per person. The tour took us through several rooms, including Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece and Rome, and Middle East. While the tour guide went into great detail regarding everything she spoke of, we weren't extremely interested in the things she was discussing. This was not her fault; we tend to be more interested in the history of objects from the last few hundred years. After the tour, we walked around for a bit taking advantage of the photographic opportunities in the Great Court, but left soon after. The British Museum is so vast and so large that one would need weeks on end to truly see everything, so don't expect to be able to tackle the museum in a day or less.

Victoria and Albert Museum: Hands down, this is absolutely my favorite museum in the entire world. The museum was originally founded in 1852, and was known as both as "The Museum of Manufactures" and " The South Kensington Museum" before finally changing names in 1899 to the "Victoria and Albert Museum" in honor of the much beloved Queen of England and her much-loved husband. Lucky for those who live nearby, the museum is free to enter, but a small donation is asked for. The museum currently contains a wide range of decorative arts including furniture, clothing, jewelry, carpets, glassware, housewares, and so much more. We opted to participate in one of the free guided tours of the British Galleries, which covered 400 years of the history of decorative arts in Britain. There were so many truly amazing artifacts in this gallery that I was practically drooling the entire tour. The one object from the British Galleries that stands out most in my mind was the Melville Bed that was created in London in 1700 and was in amazingly good condition, given it's age. Unfortunately, we only had a few hours to devote to the museum, so aside from the British Galleries, the only other area of the museum I was able to tour was the costume collection. This incredibly interesting exhibit was filled with clothing from four centuries; from the beginning of the 18th century to the most recent designs of the 21st century. Next time we go to London, I know I will be devoting a lot more time to this amazing museum.

St. Paul's Cathedral: St. Paul's was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 and was finally completed in 1708, on Wren's 76th birthday. At the time of our visit, St. Paul's had just undergone and completed a massive cleaning of it's interior walls, and was in the process of cleaning the exterior facade. The limestone exterior, which had turned into a dark gray color after being subjected to many years of dirt and smog, had been brilliantly restored to it's originally creamy beige color. The project was projected to be quite costly (£40 million) and timely, but in my opinion, was worth every pence and ounce of sweat that had gone into it! In addition to paying the entry fee, we also paid extra money for a guided tour of the cathedral. We felt this was definitely worth the cost as the guide did a wonderful job of describing the long history of the beautiful church, and even took us into a few areas that were normally off limits to visitors. In terms of the interior of the church itself, we were not only blown away by it's massive size and scale, but also by it's one of a kind beauty. I've seen and visited many of the great churches of Europe, but there was just something extra special about St. Paul's that I couldn't quite place my finger on. I was awestruck by it's extraordinary splendor; to this day, it is still one of the favorite churches that I've visited (tied with Sainte Chappelle in Paris).

Buckingham Palace: The main motivation for planning our trip to occur during September can be completely owed to Queen Elizabeth's London residence. The interior of Buckingham Palace is only viewable to the public during the months of August and September when the Queen is away up at Balmoral Estate in Scotland. I am one of the many people who are obsessed with the British Royal Family, and the thought of being able to walk through the same rooms that the Queen and the lovely Prince William have done so many times before was truly exciting for me! In addition to visiting the palace, the tickets we purchased for our visit also included entrance to the Royal Mews and the Queens Gallery. We toured the Queens Gallery first, which displayed various items of art and other treasures from the Royal Collection. During our visit, we were lucky enough to view a temporary display of cards that the Queen had received from young students all over Great Britain for her recent 80th birthday celebration. After touring the Queens Gallery, we headed into the palace. Understandably, there was quite a thorough security process we had to complete before entering the palace. Our ticket included an audio guide, which gave a very detailed description of each of the state rooms we visited. The state rooms were in impeccable condition, and lavishly decorated in deep shades of reds, golds, yellows, and purples. The best part of our tour hour was the unexpected temporary exhibition "Dress for the Occasion" which displayed 50 gowns and gems from throughout the Queen's reign, from her wedding dress to the Vladimir Tiara, which was smuggled out of Russia during the revolution. It was so amazing to be able to view these utterly gorgeous gowns right before my very own eyes! After our visit had concluded at the palace, we walked to the Royal Mews, which houses the Royal horse-drawn carriages and motor cars, and of course, the famous Windsor Grey horses. Unlike the Queens Gallery and the Royal State Rooms, we were actually able to take photographs within the Royal Mews.

Hyde Park: We had wanted to visit this park, one of the biggest in London at 350 acres large, in order to see Speaker's Corner in action. Speaker's Corner is an area in the park where anyone is allowed to partake in public speaking as long as their speeches are considered "lawful". Unfortunately, with our schedule, our visit to the park did not coincide with Speaker's Corner busiest time on early Sunday afternoon, which is when most people gather. Instead, we walked through the grounds, taking a few photographs.

Piccadilly Circus: Comparable to New York City's Times Square, this lit-up area of London is located in London's West End and is usually filled with many tourists posing in front of the neon signs and advertisements. We, of course, did exactly the same and only stayed for a few minutes as there really wasn't that much to see.

Kensington Palace & Gardens: Although Kensington Palace had been described by a few guidebooks as "drab, boring, and lifeless" I was not detoured. It was important that I visit the former home of Princess Diana, where she lived during and after her marriage to Prince Charles. Kensington Palace was built in the early 17th century and was later acquired by the royal family in 1689. It remained the favored residence of the royal family for 70 years, with George II being the last reigning monarch to live in the palace. Lucky for us, during our visit there was a temporary exhibit featuring photos of Diana taken by famed photographer Mario Testino and also another exhibit of a few of Diana's famous evening gowns. In addition to the sections of the palace devoted to Diana, there was also various rooms open for display throughout the palace, although none were as spectacular as those found at Buckingham or Windsor. After touring the palace, we walked outside to enjoy the sprawling gardens.

Harrods: London's famed department store originally opened back in 1834 and is one of the world's largest in the world, along with Macy's in New York City. Today, the store encompasses over one million square feet of selling space on a 4.5 acre site. We only had an hour or so to spend at the store, so I made a beeline to the Christmas section, which was filled with countless trees and decorations. Of course, I managed to purchase a few ornaments to add to my never ending collection. We had wanted to stop in at the food halls, but there just wasn't enough time. We will definitely make sure to stop by on our next trip.

British Library: We visited the national library of the United Kingdom in order to tour the Sir John Ritblat Gallery. This gallery contains such treasures as the first complete Bible, the Magna Carta, Shakespeare's First Folio, a few of Lennon's manuscripts, and so much more. Like so many other sights in London, entrance to this exhibit was free. While most of the items were interesting, we most enjoyed looking at the original manuscripts of many of the Beatles famous songs.

Imperial War Museum: This amazing museum covers the history of war and conflict in Britain and the Commonwealth from World War I to the present day. There are a total of six floors and galleries that present exhibitions on things such as aircraft to weapons to the Holocaust to crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, our schedule did not allow us enough time to fully appreciate the museum's many galleries. Because we were short on time, we only toured the Holocaust Exhibition which was highly interesting and presented in a sensitive but realistic manner.

Tower of London: This is considered by many to be one of the "must-see" sights in London. This historic monument is located on the banks of the Thames River and is a large fortress with several buildings set within it's walls. The oldest building in the fortress is the White Tower, which was constructed in 1078 by William the Conqueror. For hundreds of years, the building was primarily used as a royal place and prison, holding famous prisoners such as Queen Elizabeth and Sir Walter Raleigh. Wanting to obtain a good introduction to the tower, we made sure to participate in one of the Beefeaters (Yeomen Warders) tours, which departed regularly from the main entrance gate. Our guide was a tad corny at times, but overall, provided great detail on the history of the tower and described many of the famous events (i.e. executions) that took place within the fortress. After the tour concluded, we made sure to stop in at the Jewel House, where we oohed, ahhed, and marveled over the beauty of the impressive crown jewels.

Windsor Castle: We visited the 1,000 year-old castle as a day-trip from London. It is the largest inhabited castle in the world and is currently occupied by the British Royal family as one of their official residences. We had purchased our tickets to the castle ahead of time, so we were able to bypass the long line, which was a huge time saver. Our tour of the massive complex began with the castle's interior, which included an excellent audio guide. Windsor Castle, much unlike the royals other home, Buckingham Palace, had a much more austere and sober decorative style. After touring the state rooms, we ventured over to St. George's Chapel, which is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in England, first established in 1348. Afterward, we toured the grounds of Windsor, including spending a few minutes watching one of the Queen's Guards as everyone and their mother posed next to him. We eventually left the castle and headed back to London via train. I would have loved to spent more time in the city of Windsor itself as it appeared to look quite charming and quaint, but I suppose we will try do that on our next visit to London.

National Portrait Gallery: Neither one of us being a huge fan of art museums, we opted not to visit the National Gallery while in London. However, since I was interested in viewing artwork painted of the many different family members of the Royal Family, we thought it might be more manageable and enjoyable to visit it's next door neighbor, the National Portrait Gallery. The museum is spread out over a few floors, but is not overwhelming at all in terms of size when compared to other museums. Over the course of two hours, we felt as though we were able to view most of the displayed collections at a relaxing pace.

Banqueting House: As entrance to this hall was automatically included with the History Royal Palaces membership we had purchased prior to leaving, we figured we should take a peak. The building was begun in 1619 and is the only remaining portion of the Palace of Whitehall. Just 27 years after it was completed in 1622, King Charles I was executed on a scaffolding in front of the building in 1649. While unassuming on the exterior, we were both blown away by the interior. The space was large and grand, with huge lofty ceilings that showcased beautifully painted frescoes completed by Peter Paul Rubens. All of this opulence made it easy to imagine the space being used for an elegant receptions and ceremonies in the 16th century. While there wasn't much to see within the room, we definitely had a good time enjoying and admiring the gorgeous artwork while sitting on one of the side benches.

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: This lovely 300 acre garden was located several miles outside of downtown London. Aside from visiting the important sights within the city, I also wanted to see some of the interesting sights on the outskirts of London; sometimes, when visiting a large city, its just nice to take a break from all of the hustle and bustle for a day. Aside from it's many gardens, Kew also contains several botanical glasshouses, and is actually one of the leading centers of the world for botanical research. The gardens were sprawling and appeared to go on forever. I had expected to see lots of colorful beds of flowers, but instead saw more mature plantings and perennial flowers. We had quite a bit of fun going inside the Palm House, which felt as though we were walking into a subtropical climate as it was quite warm and muggy inside.

Kew Palace: Within the grounds of Kew Garden is located two former retreats that were once used by the Royal British family; Kew Palace and Queen Charlotte's Cottage. Kew Palace was originally built in 1663 as a merchant's house but was was later purchased by the Royal family in 1781 by George III. The palace had just undergone a ten year restoration and had only opened a few weeks prior to our visit, so I felt very lucky to be able to tour it. Entrance to Kew Palace was covered by the Historic Royal Palaces membership that we had purchased prior to the trip. I was, naturally, excited as always to tour a former royal home. However, I was more exited than normal as Kew Palace was unlike any other royal home we had visited in the past due to it's unusually small size. And, when, I say "small" I mean so in proportion to the more commonly known HUGE size that is expected of a royal palace, such as Buckingham, for example. For once on the trip, it was nice to visit a sight that was small enough in size to be able to see and enjoy it thoroughly. We eventually wandered our way over to Queen Charlotte's Cottage. This building, unlike Kew Palace, was not used as a home, but rather to have lunches and tea parties. It was cute, quaint, and quintessentially English with it's exposed timber beams and thatched roof. If you are interested in stopping by the cottage, be forewarned that it is only open on weekends in the summer.

Hampton Court Palace: After visiting Kew Gardens, we took a bus to nearby Hampton Court Palace. This Tudor palace was once the home of the infamous Henry the VIII and his six wives. The home was originally owned by Thomas Wosley, then Archbishop of York and Chief Minister to the King. Thomas later gifted the massive palace to the King after he had fallen from his favor. Entrance to Hampton Court was also included with our membership card from Historic Royal Palaces. In order to enhance our visit, we listened to an audio guide as we toured the Queen's State Apartments, the King's Apartments, and the Georgian Rooms. We made sure to walk down the infamous Long Gallery where Queen Catherine Howard had run, pleading for her life to King Henry before she was to be executed upon his orders for committing treason (i.e. adultery). We can attest that there was a definite creepy vibe in this hall that both of us felt. After touring the huge palace, we went outside and wandered through the gardens. We also made sure to venture down into the large Tudor Kitchens, which was the only interior portion of the palace that we were allowed to photograph. Hampton Court has to be one of the largest palaces/castles that I have ever seen; it's size is difficult to put into context as it is incredibly enormous. We could have easily spent an entire day here and not seen all that is available for visitors to tour in the palace or on it's sprawling grounds.

Unfortunately, two days into our trip, I became very ill. I had a horrid sore throat and terrible cough that prevented me from being able to breath when I laid down. At first, I figured that it would go away in a few days, but alas, it did not. Four days later, the cough was even worse, and no sore throat lozenge would sooth the pain my throat was experiencing. The last straw for me was the night before we finally decided to take me to the doctor; I was attempting to sleep upright while I slept, but naturally, my body of course slid into a laying position. I wound up coughing so bad that I stopped breathing several times. At this point, I knew I had something very serious that wasn't going to go away on it's on. We were so reluctant to go to the doctor as we figured it would be quite expensive since our US medical insurance obviously would not cover the visit. After consulting with our hotel, we were informed that the closest doctor office was at Victoria Station, about a 15 minute walk away. After seeing the doctor, he informed me that I had tonsillitis, which I had probably contracted on the plane ride over from Seattle. I received a few medications and all in all, everything cost less than $100. Finding medical care for that cheap in the United States is impossible without insurance, so we were quite surprised but also very thankful. From the time my sickness first appeared, it took about ten days until I began to feel better. By that point, Mike had also come down with what seemed to be a lesser form of what I had. Luckily, his took much less time to overcome and did not require a doctor visit or medication.

Sicknesses aside, we loved every minute of our time in London. Although we were nearly 6000 miles away from Seattle, we immediately felt comfortable and at home in the city. There was no language barrier, an efficient public transportation system, a plethora of sights that would take weeks to see, friendly and helpful locals, and an amazing sense of history that surrounded us wherever we went. The city was so easy to enjoy; I've heard a few people mention that they didn't care for the city, but I truly find that hard to believe. While it's one of the largest cities in the world, it is very much about the individual neighborhoods that each have their own quirks and characteristics. I believe that London has something for every type of personality; palaces and castles for the history buffs, churches galore, dozens of museums, a huge variety of ethnic eateries for foodies, numerous kid-friendly attractions, endless shopping opportunities, and a tremendous assortment of theater and musical shows. What did I enjoy most in London? For me, it was the eclectic meshing of history that was intertwined so beautifully throughout the city; I loved how the new and old came together seamlessly as though it was always meant to be that way. London is a city that has forever captured my heart, and one that I know I will return to many times throughout my life.

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