There is a reason that London continues to be one of the top tourist destinations in the world : With all of the history, culture, entertainment, shopping, royalty, and just all-around ambiance, it is difficult to top London. This was our third trip to this spectacular city; however, the first two were brief and a long time ago, so we were looking forward to having an entire week to explore. For our friends Ed and Charlotte, it was their first visit, which made it even more fun.
Our overnight flight from Houston to London arrived at 9:30 a.m., and we promptly bought underground train tickets (London's Tube) for the 55-minute ride to our hotel on Kensington High Street, the Hilton Olympia. Our rooms were not yet ready, so we left our bags with the concierge and decided to take a Sunday afternoon, Thames River cruise. We walked four minutes to the Tube station and made our way to the Westminster Pier on the Thames River. We boarded a boat and enjoyed the sights along the river up to Greenwich, where we debarked.
We strolled along the Thames on Five-Foot Walk, so named for the width
of the path, pausing for views in front of the Old Royal Naval College. The main building was split in two, it is said, because Queen Mary didn't want the view of the river blocked from her house. We stood in front of the twin domed towers which frame the Queen's house, with the Royal Observatory Greenwich crowning the hill just beyond. Located on the prime meridian (0 degrees longitude), the observatory is the point from which all time is measured--Greenwich Mean Time. Continuing our walk past the college, a drizzle began to fall so we ducked into Charles Dickens' favorite pub, the Trafalgar Tavern.
On our return cruise down the Thames, we got off at the Waterloo Pier and queued up for our London Eye experience. The Eye is the world's highest observation wheel. This giant Ferris wheel has 32 air-conditioned capsules, each of which holds 25 people for the 30-minute rotation. From the top of this 443-foot-high wheel--the highest public viewpoint in the city--even Big Ben looks tiny, but it's a great orientation to the layout of the city, and though pricey, we loved it.
We returned to the Hilton, checked into our comfortable rooms, and
then had dinner at an Italian restaurant on Kensington High Street, about a 10-minute walk from our hotel before sleeping away the jet lag.
Monday morning began with a huge, full English breakfast at the hotel, followed by a three-hour "Regal London" bus tour, which gave us a good overall view of landmark sights: Kensington Palace, Prince Albert Memorial, Albert Hall, National History Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Harrod's in Knightsbridge, Hyde Park, Wellington Arch, Marble arch, Kensington Gardens, John Quincy Adams' home, Piccadilly Circus , Burlington Arcade, Royal Academy of Arts, Fortnum & Mason's (famous store), Trafalgar Square, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, National Gallery, Church of St. Martin, Whitehall Palace, # 10 Downing Street (where the prime minister resides), Buckingham Palace, and St. James Palace (where Prince Charles and Camilla live). We stopped at Buckingham Palace and watched a portion of the Changing of the Guard ceremony. We observed as the New Guard formed up, was inspected, then marched toward the Palace with a full military band and regimental colors.
The bus deposited us at Harrod's when the tour was finished, and we spent part of an hour wandering around the world's most famous luxury department
store. After that, we cabbed to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet Rooms, an impressive exploration of the man often regarded as the greatest ever Brit. Cutting-edge technology and multi-media displays brought the exciting story of Winston Churchill to life, and we were mesmerized for almost two hours. Of the many wonderful exhibits and displays, I enjoyed two the most: first, all the wonderful oils Churchill painted after the war, and second, the motion-detecting speeches. As you passed certain points, all of a sudden that famous voice launched into some of his famous speeches and rallying calls. All four of us loved this place!
Next on our busy schedule was a tour of Westminster Abbey, one of the greatest churches in the English-speaking world, where England's kings and queens have been crowned and buried since 1066. Over 3,000 tombs of kings, queens, poets, politicians, and warriors lie within its stained glass splendor. A quick visit to the nearby Westminster Cathedral, the largest Catholic church in England, was followed by a couple of hours in the Imperial War Museum. This impressive museum covers all of the wars of the 20th century. We particularly enjoyed the two "experience" rooms, which recreated the
sights and sounds of the trenches in WWI and the blitz of London during WWII.
A long and busy day concluded with some fantastic "pub grub" at the Warwick Arms near our hotel. We had delicious "Royal Sapphire" drinks for happy hour (lemonade, cranberry juice, and Bombay Sapphire gin) and then feasted on fabulous fish and chips.
Tuesday was devoted to three eminent London treats: Tower of London, British Museum, and West End theatre. The Tower of London is, of course, a must-see for everyone visiting London. Dating back to William the Conqueror in 1077, the Tower was built as a prison and execution site for anyone who dared to oppose the Crown and as a lookout for invaders coming up the Thames. We took almost three hours to visit the Crown Jewels, White Tower, Bloody Tower, execution site, and the medieval palace.
We took the Tube to Leicester Square to purchase discount tickets for the theatre tonight, and then "Tubed" to THE chronicle of Western civilization, the British Museum. This was the London sight that I had most desired to visit for one main reason: to see all of the artifacts of ancient Greece, Egypt, and
Turkey that we couldn't see when we visited those countries! When we toured ancient ruins in those three countries, we were told by guides that most of the treasures had been taken by the British and now reside in the British Museum. Still a sore spot with those countries today, Britain claims they did it to preserve and protect the objects. Anyway, we finally got to see the Rosetta Stone from Egypt, the Elgin Marbles and frieze of the Parthenon, plus many, many other amazing artifacts from 3,000 B.C. to modern day.
After several fascinating hours in the museum, we Tubed to the West End and had dinner at a delightfully authentic Chinese restaurant called Mayflower. Following our meal, we enjoyed Les Miserables, the world's longest running musical, in the Queen's Theatre. We had seen Les Mis twice before, in New York and in Houston, and felt that this production was by far the best of the three.
All of Wednesday was spent enjoying a tour of the countryside west of London, including the Cotswolds, Stonehenge, the Roman city of Bath, and the charming town of Salisbury. The Cotswolds is a range of hills in west-central England, sometimes
called the Heart of England. It is truly one of the prettiest and most quintessentially English regions of England. It was truly so "typically English" as we passed along the gentle hillsides (wolds), river valleys, meadows, stone fences, hedgerows, honey-toned stone cottages with thatched roofs, beech woods, and sleepy ancient limestone villages where time has stood still for over 300 years.
Our first stop was the unique city of Bath, surrounded by stunning rolling landscapes and surely one of England's most beautiful places to visit. We spent time in the splendid Abbey, one of the great medieval churches of England, founded in 1499, and of course in the Roman baths. Around Britain's only hot spring, the Romans built a magnificent temple and bathing complex that still flows with natural hot water. The extensive ruins and treasures are beautifully preserved and presented. We drove around the town admiring the magnificent Georgian buildings and homes, including one belonging to Nicholas Cage.
After lingering over some fantastic Costa coffee (England's version of Starbuck's), we departed Bath for our next stop, the hugely impressive Stonehenge. Superbly situated in England's rural heartland, surrounded by hundreds of burial mounds, the mysterious monoliths of the
ancient temple of Stonehenge date back over 5,000 years. Stonehenge has inspired people to study and interpret it for centuries: how and when it was built, who built it, and most importantly, why it was built. Stonehenge (which means hanging stones) still keeps many of these secrets, but archaeology and modern science believe it to have been built for religious and astronomical purposes between 3,000 and 1,500 B.C. In its day, the construction must have been an impressive engineering feat. At least 80 immense stones, weighing forty tons each, were brought somehow from an area of Wales 240 miles away. The closer I got, the more amazing it became.
Our final stop on this fascinating and beautiful 10-hour excursion was the village of Salisbury. As we approached, the awesome sight of the Salisbury Cathedral spire soared a breathtaking 404 feet into the sky (tallest church spire in the U.K.), dominating the landscape for many miles. The inside of the medieval cathedral, dating from 1220, was spacious and tranquil, but its most notable claim is having the best preserved of only four original Magna Carta (1215).
Another full day of sightseeing in the beautiful Cotswolds awaited us Thursday after
another hearty, full English breakfast at the hotel. Our first stop was in the city of Oxford, of course home to one of the world's top universities of the same name. The esteemed colleges of Oxford date back to 1167, and among the many famous students were Bill Clinton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis Carroll, 25 British prime ministers, and twelve saints. The college was also the setting for some of the famous scenes from the Harry Potter movies. We visited Christchurch, home to the university's largest quad and the city's cathedral and then had time for some shopping on the cobbled streets before moving on to our next destination, Stratford-upon-Avon.
Stratford-upon-Avon is a picturesque town beautifully situated on the Avon River with a wealth of black-and-white-timber-framed buildings. It is, of course, most famous for being the birthplace of the world's greatest playwright, William Shakespeare. We gained a fascinating insight into his life on a guided tour of the home where he was born in 1564 and lived his formative years. It is a substantial house, as William's father was a successful glove maker, and many furnishings are original to the house. The floor in the entrance is the
original floor--the very one Shakespeare walked on. Most intriguing to me were the two window panes inscribed with the signatures of visitors to the house over the centuries. Many literary notables visited the birthplace and etched their names in the window glass, including Sir Walter Scott, Mark Twain, Lord Byron, John Keats, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Shakespearean actor John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln's assassin), William Thackeray, and Thomas Carlisle.
We exited the two-story home and glove-making workshop via the charming and meticulously tended gardens, which contain many trees, flowers, and herbs mentioned in Shakespeare's works. In fact, we ate our picnic lunches under the ancient olive tree mentioned in Antony and Cleopatra. Some time was left to stroll the cobbled streets of the village and enjoy the many tea rooms and shops before departing for Warwick Castle.
Warwick Castle is a medieval castle originally built as a wooden fortification by William the Conqueror in 1068. Throughout the centuries, Warwick grew into a formidable stone stronghold for men so influential that they could make or break the King of England. We explored some of the many rooms and exhibits inside the castle, each of which depict life in the castle
during different periods of time. We chose not to visit the dungeon with its gruesome torture devices, however. Many forms of Medieval entertainment occur here daily, such as jousting, tug o' war, archery, catapult, and birds of prey. We watched the catapult exhibition before returning to the bus for the 2 1/2 - hour ride back to London, where we had dinner at the Crown and Sceptre Pub near our hotel (more great fish and chips).
Friday was Paris day, so we got up early to catch the 6:55 a.m. train. The sleek, high-speed Eurostar train whisked us under the English Channel to Paris in 2 hours and 15 minutes. About 20 of those minutes were in complete darkness when we were in the tunnel under the Channel.
Although we only had about 10 hours in the City of Lights, we were able to visit quite a lot of attractions because Bill and I had, within the past few years, spent a week getting to know the city as well as a tourist can, and we utilized that knowledge to plan a schedule/itinerary that maximized our time.
From the train station, we took a cab to Montmartre,
past Moulin Rouge, and toured the beautiful Sacre Coeur Basilica. From there we taxied past the Arc d' Triomphe and along the Champs Elysees to the Eiffel Tower. We could not believe the crowds there! The entire plaza around the base of the Tower was shoulder-to-shoulder people in snaking lines that seemed to have no beginning and no end. We pushed and shoved our way across the Tower plaza to the Champ de Mars Park, where we leisurely ate our picnic lunches with a delightful view of the Eiffel Tower.
After lunch, we made our way back across the plaza to the Seine River for a one-hour Seine cruise, followed by a short cab ride to Napoleon's Tomb and Army Museum. Our cab driver was from Iraq and must have just recently arrived in Paris because he had no idea where to go. I had to give him directions on where to go from the back seat. Napoleon's tomb lies under a grand dome glittering with 26 pounds of gold, and he is surrounded by Europe's greatest military museum, Invalides.
Our final experience was Notre Dame, which we toured using Rick Steves' guide. We stayed for mass at
5:45 and then taxied to the train station. We had salads for dinner at the train station and paid one euro apiece to use the toilets (about $1.50) before departing on the 8 p.m. Eurostar.
Alas, it was Saturday, and our plane was scheduled to leave Charles deGaulle Airport at noon, but there was a five-hour delay due to maintenance in Houston. We spent the time comfortably, though, in the lovely, four-level executive lounge, where we had every type of beverage and snack we could imagine, plus computers and television. We finally arrived home around 9 p.m.
London is such a spectacular city--a cultural carnival and a world in itself. There is so much culture, so much history, and so much fun. London offers insight into the history of the world through its many museums and libraries, and the architecture, both new and old, takes your breath away. Plays are even better when seen in England. I'm so glad we had the opportunity to spend an entire week, but we could have used at least one more!
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