"Long weekend to London" London Travelogue by merockwell
London Travel Guide: 25,567 reviews and 58,255 photos
When we chose to move to Massachusetts (transferred against our will, kicking and screaming all the way), we recognized that one of the many (only) advantages to moving to Massachusetts was that we would be 6 hours closer to Europe. The others being 1) Being completely isolated from all your friends and family, 2) A complete lack of any good restaurants, other than Italian, and 3) The joy of spending all day outside in 10 degree weather chipping a 4" layer of ice from your driveway so that you don't fall down and break your hip trying to get the mail. Sorry, I digress. Back to the subject. We had talked about how nice it would be to be able to "pop over" for a few days instead of having to do a couple of weeks at a time in order to justify the expense and hassle of a 14 hour flight. So, almost 4 years later we finally got around to testing this theory. We (I) had wanted to go to London for some time. It's only a six and a half hour flight from Boston which put it in our range for a long weekend trip. Eileen was eager (willing) to see London as well. So with her urging (grudging acceptance of the inevitable) we took the plunge.
We booked a red eye on Wednesday night arriving at 7AM Thursday with a return on Monday at 3:15PM arriving back in Boston at 5:30PM. That gave us 4 full days in London out of 5. Not bad. We flew Virgin Atlantic, which if you haven't had the pleasure (a word rarely associated with air travel these days) is a really great airline. Our other faves are Virgin America, Jet Blue and Aer Lingus. All have comfyish seats, decent food and excellent in flight entertainment. One downside to the great in flight entertainment is that instead of getting bored and sleeping on your red eye to London you may end up staying up all night watching movies. Note to self: Don't do that next time.
Customs was a bit of a ***, but that's what we get living in these times. We ended up taking a cab from Heathrow into town. The directions for the underground looked pretty straight forward, just one change, but never having used the underground before we weren't sure. We just wanted to get there as painlessly as possible so we opted for the cab. Let me say that LA traffic has nothing on London. No way, no how would I drive a car in London rush hour traffic. Between driving on the wrong side and the insane traffic I wouldn't get 6 blocks without clipping at least one pedestrian, having a couple of minor side swipes and getting at least half a dozen colorful gestures from the locals.
Our hotel was in a quiet residential area of Kensington which is about a 15 minute ride on the tube from central London. It was what looked like a building of 4 flats that had been converted to a 10 room hotel. Simple, but clean and very reasonable (for London). We pay less than half as much for a 700 sq ft corner suite with hot tub, bar and several big screen TV's in Reno, but this isn't Reno is it? It did come with a full English breakfast, not just rolls and juice, which was great. The owners were a nice Mongolian couple. Mongolian? Yep. Coming from the SF bay area we thought we were pretty used to cultural diversity. Oh, no. Not even close. London wins hands down. We heard more different languages spoken in 4 days than I think I've heard in my entire life. It became kind of a game. "Unknown Languages for a thousand, Alex". "Answer: It uses many words of Viking origin but is pronounced with a distinctively Chinese accent". .........DING !....."What is Turkmenise?" Wrong...... "Answer........... Uzbek." Damn !! Got close on that one.
After dropping off our bags we headed out to see what we could see. Eileen and I use a pretty free wheeling style when we travel. We don't have an itinerary we have a list of possibilities. We don't do tours. The last thing we want is for some tour guide to tell us "Sorry, it's time to stop having fun now. We have to go." And we rarely make reservations. We don't want to "have to be" anywhere at a certain time. We're on vacation! We wanted to ease into the whole getting around by underground thing so we decided to check out Buckingham Palace since it was just 3 stops away and no transfer was required. Getting there was painless and quick, which was to be our experience the entire trip. The tube will take you within a 10 minute walk of pretty much anywhere in London. When we got to Buckingham Palace we did discover one minor snag in our plan. You do need reservations to go inside, even on a Thursday morning. I never said our system was perfect! It's just our system. OK.....Plan B. This is where the list comes in handy. We'll go to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Back on the tube and 2 stops away.
By the time we got off at the station we were starting to get a little hungry so we decided to find someplace for a light munch. We usually try to avoid eating near any major attractions in order to avoid "tourist food" so we just headed off in the opposite direction and within a couple of blocks we found this lane with a bunch of little eateries and shops. It looked promising and we picked the "Chopstix Noodle Bar". Hardly traditional English fare, but we wanted something light and the place was quite busy which is usually a good sign. It turned out to be one of the most memorable dining experiences of our lives. It was so memorable that when we got home I spent half an hour using Mapquest, Googlemaps, Google Earth and other search engines just to find this place again just so that I could get the name right. It was, to put it mildly, hands down the worst food we've ever tasted. Not just the worst Chinese food, the worst food period, and by a country mile. Between us we ordered 5 different dishes and each taste was even more horrific than the last. How they managed to make Chow Mein noodles taste like moldy cardboard and sour milk I'll never know. 5 dishes and 5 bites later we were walking out the door. At least we think that's what happened. The next 10 minutes are kind of hazy even now as we were both suffering some form of Post Traumatic Stress. When we regained our senses we found ourselves seated in some sort of Organic Bistro Cafe place eating tasty morsels and drinking the biggest damn cappuccino you've ever seen. No exaggeration, this thing was in a soup bowl. All was right with the world again.
The Victoria and Albert museum is dedicated to the "Decorative Arts". Basically it's all the cool stuff that you would put in your castle or mansion besides paintings and sculptures. If you've never seen one, look for one. If you've seen one, but passed it by, don't. There will be masterpieces galore on display that rival anything you'll see in the "fine art" museums. Some things will blow you away by their sheer beauty while others will amaze you with their craftsmanship. One that stands out for me was this nice painting of farmers with a village in the background. It caught my eye as a wandered by so I stopped to admire it from a few feet away. Something was different, but I couldn't put my finger on it so I stepped up to about a foot away to really look at it. That's when I could finally see that this was not a painting at all. It was a mosaic made of incredibly small pieces of stone. The average size was about like the head of a pin and all were shaped and fitted so closely together that the seams were virtually invisible. There must have been a million pieces. Good god, this must have taken forever. It turns out that this estimate was a bit on the high side. It actually took him 20 years to complete. OK, not forever, but 20 years on one piece? Lately, I can't seem to focus on anything for more than a few hours at a time. I probably never could but I've finally reached the age where I can blame in on early onset Alzheimer's. The Victoria and Albert is absolutely huge. As we learned from one of the attendants that we were chatting with it is the second largest museum in the world, second only to The Louvre in Paris. There are over 7 MILES of galleries here. We did a mile, maybe a bit more. I suppose we could have done more, but for us a few hours is about all of the "culture" that we can handle at any one time. This place is good for at least 3 more visits just to wander through the major sections and has earned a "4 sparkler" rating in the MELNS guide. (Mark and Eileen's List of Neat Stuff)
After the V&A we were starting to run out of gas and were in need of a recharge so we headed back to the hotel for a little nap time. Not much to talk about here. I'm sure there were a lot of snorting, wheezing, and other un-natural sounds involved, but we were blissfully unaware. I can't say the same for our neighbors though.
After nap time we were ready to do a little more and have some dinner. Eileen always does a scrap book of our trips so it is my job to locate at least one place on each trip where we might find a special book or some unique paper from the trip. I had located a shop near the British Museum so we headed out. To get there we did our first transfer from one underground line to another without ending up in Chelsea, so some high fives were in order. We did find the shop we were looking for, but unfortunately it was closed. No big deal since we were going to be back in this area a couple more times to visit the British Museum and other attractions found in the MELNS guide. It was time for dinner anyway so we decided on an old English Pub that was in the neighborhood. It had been around for a couple hundred years and was down this back alley near the tube station. Walking the alley you could really get a sense of what London looked like in Charles Dickens time. Narrow cobble stone lane, dim streetlamps, with tudor and brick buildings lining the sides. The pub was pretty busy and they had a nice upstairs dining room, so we were able to get seated right away. Eileen had "Something or Other Wellington" which she thought was good, but not great (I liked it a lot) and a glass of "Lemonade on tap" which was excellent. I went traditional. Fish and Chips and a pint of Guinness! I can put a check mark in that box now. The waitress described the Fish and Chips as "massive" and she didn't exaggerate. It was very good, to boot. A little desert and coffee topped things off nicely. Full tummies and tired feet made our next decision easy............ BEDTIME!!
The next day we decided to hit the British Museum to look at some old stuff (for me) and then head up to the Camden Market to do some shopping (for Eileen). The British Museum is really great. It is the oldest museum in the world holding world class collections from ancient to modern from all over the world. I guess we shouldn't be surprised. After all, Brittan was a world super power for hundreds of years, so the British Museum is one of the places where they store their 300 years of plunder. I'm sure that isn't the case for everything, but I'm pretty sure that the Greeks didn't tell the Brits "Can you please rip off all of the sculptures from the face of the Parthenon and take them away? We're redecorating." That takes nothing away from the museum itself which is just fabulous, and free by the way. We just barely scratched the surface but we did squeeze in all of my must sees before reaching our culture saturation point. The Rosetta Stone, the statue of Ramesees II, the Portland Vase, the Mildenhall Treasure, and of course, the Parthenon Sculptures. They also had an extensive collection of monumental statues and reliefs from ancient Persia which I didn't know about, but really liked. Between these there were treasures great and small. Like the V&A we're going to need several more visits just to see all the high points of everything housed here.
By this time it was mid afternoon, so after a quick lunch we took the tube north to Camden Town. Evidently this started out years back with a farmers market on one corner and a flea market on the weekends down the block. It has now mushroomed into block after block of shops and stalls selling everything from kites to kilts, bananas to bongo drums. There are literally thousands of shops here. We figured this would be a good place to find something to take home to remind us of our trip. There are a lot of clothing vendors throughout, so it took a while to get from place to place since there was a lot of "yes, that's a nice dress, honey." and "I like that top too", and "yes, those are cute shoes." We had spotted several possibilities, like a hand tooled leather bound book for Eileen's scrapbook and a few other "Nice, but not quite it" items. After a couple of hours it was time to get off our feet and have something to drink. I haven't mentioned the weather yet. When we planned this trip we had prepared ourselves for the notoriously crappy London weather. It would be a big change from our notoriously crappy New England weather. But to our pleasant surprise London had a heat wave the whole time we were there. 5 straight days of sunshine and 80-85 degree temperatures. It was great. Anyway, after cooling off and resting our feet, we had decided that we would settle for the leather bound book. Like I said it was OK, but..... On the way back Eileen needed to use the loo (how British). We found one tucked away down in the bowels under what used to be a Stable but is now (no surprise) another market. Winding our way back out I noticed some pottery in a side stall and we stopped to look. They had some very pretty platters, bowls and mugs. The lady running it was nice and as we chatted along we found out that she was Palestinian and all of the pottery in her shop is made in east Jerusalem. We found a beautiful square platter and after the obligatory haggling we got her down to 25 pounds, and she threw in a coffee mug. So now we have our souvenir of London. A platter with a date palm motif, bought from a Palestinian woman, made by Arabs in Jerusalem. How typically British. Every time I see it I can't help but hear "God save the Queen" in my head.
It was time for dinner. We had noticed this restaurant after getting off at our tube stop for the hotel the night before. It was called Best Mangal 2. We hadn't a clue what that meant, but there was a line out the door with people getting take out, the tables in the back were packed and since this was Best Mangal 2 it made sense that Best Mangal 1 was a success. We decided to give it a go for dinner that night. We showed up without reservations (AGAIN) but only had to wait about 10 minutes. We got a chance to watch the guys cooking in the front window and take in the aromas of what smelled like some pretty terrific grilled meats. Grilling may not be the most accurate term for what was going on here. I'm not sure what you would call it when you put meat over coals that are so hot that it can melt steel. Smelting meat doesn't sound very appetizing though, so we'll just stick with grilling. It turns out this was a Turkish restaurant. This was a first for both of us. After smelling all the wonderful aromas coming from the smelter (grill) for the last 10 minutes we were ready. We perused the menu from front to back and found only 1 thing on the menu that we recognized. Falafels. That has never stopped us before and the aromas were just so good that we didn't much care. It had to be good. We had both the mega sampler appetizer platter and the mega sampler dinner for 2. It was freaking awesome! Somehow we ate every last morsel, then just to put a punctuation mark on this food fest, we topped it off with the sampler desert platter and 2 Turkish coffees. Our only regret from this mega meal of Turkish gastronomic tastiness is that we have absolutely no idea what anything we ate was called. It really doesn't matter. This was a GREAT meal. It more than made up for that "other place", the thought of which still gives me nightmares. So, eating in London had proven to be sort of like a Dickens novel. "It was the best of food, it was the worst of food".
The next day we decided to see Westminster Abbey in the morning. It's right off the Thames next to the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. There is a LOT of history here. Every monarch since William the Conqueror in 1066 has been crowned here. It is chock a block full of tombs and monuments going back a thousand years. We particularly liked seeing the Lady Chapel where Queen Mary (catholic) a.k.a. "Bloody Mary" and her half sister Queen Elizabeth I (protestant) are buried together. We found this interesting and insightful given our extensive research into this period of English history (We had watched "The Tudors" on HBO). Opposite this chapel is a mirror one where Mary Queen of Scots is buried. The fact that she was beheaded for treason by Elizabeth who is right next door didn't seem to matter. Go figure.
After lunch and a rest we took off to see the Tower of London. When you exit the Tower Hill station you walk right by a large section of the old Roman wall that surrounded Londinium. It's surprising how many capitals and other major cities in Europe started out as Roman settlements. The Tower complex is pretty much straight in front of you. It's kind of hard to miss. Huge freaking walls surrounded by a big ass moat. We headed off around to the left looking for the entrance. Very soon I was convinced that the entrance was on the other side since you could look down the length of the moat all the way down to the Thames and there was no drawbridge in sight. Unless they had dug a tunnel under the moat or were ferrying people over the moat by helicopter you weren't getting in from this side. A lively discussion ensued about the relative merits of continuing down this way (THE WRONG WAY!!) to find the entrance or going around to the other side. Eileen insisted on asking some locals. I stood off to the side about 20 feet to watch. "Excuse me, do you know where the entrance to the Tower is?"........" Mi dispiace, non capisco." Srike one. "Excuse me, do you know where the entrance to the Tower is?" ......."Jeg beklager, forstår jeg ikke." .....Strike two. "Excuse me, do you know where the entrance to the Tower is?"........." 私は申し訳ありませんが、理解していません。". Strike 3 ! YOU'RE OUT !!. "Are you ready to go around to the other side now, honey?" The entrance was indeed on the other side as I had predicted. I was very magnanamous and only reminded Eileen that I was right and she was wrong three or 4 more times. There is a lot of pretty cool stuff in the Tower complex. The Armory has bunches of armor, swords, canon and stuff. Along with all this military paraphanalia there is the original 16th century execution block and axe used for beheadings. Gruesome, yes, morbid, yes, grizzly, yes, but still pretty cool. Traitors gate is the original entrance from the Thames where prisoners were brought through to be locked up or excecuted. After perusing the armories, the excecution grounds, traitors gate and the like we needed something a little happier to focus on and the Tower has that too. The Crown Jewels. Man o man, are these things secured. Asside from all of the heavily armed guards discreetly standing in every dark nook and cranny, you go through what has to be a 2 foot thick vault door. Once you are in and actually get to see the crowns, cepters, and other royal regalia, you can understand why. Wow! There is some serious bling here. P-Diddy and Fiddy-Cent got nothin' on the Queen.
On our last day, Eileen wanted to see the National Gallery and something else that I can't remember now. By this time we were both starting to feel the effects of 3 days walking the streets of London. I was wearing a knee brace to help my sore maniscus and Eileen's hip was starting to give her fits by popping out randomly. We're both pretty pissed off about this getting old ***. We made it to the National Gallery around noon. Like I said, the effects of the last 3 days were starting to show, so we were moving kind of slow. Like all of the other major attractions that we had seen in London, the National Gallery was excellent. It's a fabulous collection of european paintings from the 1300's through the early 20th century. We wandered the galleries taking time to sit and admire the paintings (actually to rest our sore joints). The more we wandered the more frequently we needed to sit and admire. We had climbed a lot of stairs over the past 3 days. After making through the 13th - 18th centuries there was one major section that we wanted to see and had left to the end. The impressionists. These happen to be our favorites and the National Gallery has quite a few very famous paintings including VanGough's Sunflowers. We were eager to see it. Oddly enough it turned out to be one of our least favorite paintings in the museum. The colors didn't look anything like what we had seen (and come to expect) in prints. It looked like he painted it using Dijon mustard instead of yellow. It struck us as drab and somehow depressing. Oh well, "eye of the beholder" and all that. By the time we finished here we NEEDED a break. St. James Park was only a couple blocks away and we figured that this was just about in range for my knee and her hip so we hobbled off. Slowly.
St. James is a pretty large park. We weren't interested. Find the first patch of grass you can and LAY DOWN. AHHHHHHHHH. That feels good. Using a camera case and purse as pillows we had a nice little nap to rest our weary bones. We woke up somewhat refreshed but still battle weary and very hungry. Need food. Need food now. I pulled out the Top 10 London book and did a quick look for something near where we were. The cafe at the ICA (Independant Cinema Arts) was highly recomended but the little dot on the map only gave me the location within a block or 2. Time to get up and find something, anything to eat. Laying down on the grass was easy. Getting up? Not so much. Gravity sucks! As I scanned around to get my bearings right across the street was a sign. As luck would have it, it read ICA. Excellent. And it was, although you would never know it was there. You enter into a bookshop and theater library and have to ask the guy behind the counter to get directions down the corridor. We didn't know the secret password, but he took pity on us and let us pass anyway.
Whatever it was that Eileen had on her list for later we never even thought about. We were DONE. We hobbled back to the tube and back to the hotel like a couple of walking wounded. We dragged ourselves up the 3 flights of stairs to our room and lay down slowly, little sobs and whimpers were the only sounds for the next 15 minutes. A few hours of doing absolutely nothing helped out a lot. We could get out of bed and make it to the bathroom in less than 2 minutes and with only 1 or 2 winces from the pain. Eventually we had to think about dinner. This was our last night in London after all so we did do something special. We had a picknick in the middle of the bed of some fried chicken that I picked up from "Mr. Chicken" down the street with some fries and a couple of Doctor Peppers. Now THAT's living the high life!!
Would we go back? Absolutely. Next time a little London and a little outside London. One thing that we discovered while there. You can hop on a train in London and be in Paris in just over 2 hours then back to London in the evening. How cool is that? Eileen's wheels are already spinning on that one.
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