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London, to London, to see the Queen!

September 23, 2010

We visited London in 2007 and stayed in the heart of the city for 10 days. At the end of our trip, we felt so connected to the city and it’s people and it’s trains (Oh, I love the tube!),  that we didn’t have the heart to leave! But leave we did, with a promise to be back. It has already been 3 years and counting, so this feels like the right time to take a trip down memory lane in a grand and beautiful city – London.

In the beginning, 10 days felt like so much time, but as always, it is never quite enough. London is so amazing, filled with an endless variety of interesting things to do, places to visit, cafes to stop at, museums to get lost in, historic landmarks to gape at, and tube stations to grow fond of (at the end of our trip we’d been in and out of the Earl’s Court station so many times that I honestly grew quite attached to this particular route), that we felt like we had not even scratched the surface of London. We did get to know a bit of her – I like to think of London as always regal, learning to be modern, sometimes lost in archaic tradition, and of course, always chic. From the moment we landed at the airport, we were overwhelmed by supremely well-dressed people. It did not matter if you were taking the train, or a cab or just crossing the road. You had to look sharp. 9 out of 10 people who passed us wore black from top to toe, men in suits holding on to leather briefcases, women in high-heeled stilettos, clutching fancy purses. They walked with purpose, like they knew exactly where they wanted to be in the next 10 seconds. Coming from laid-back California, this was quite a change for us!

We got acquainted with the famed London Underground on our very first day because we had to take the train from the London airport to our cozy, tucked away hotel in Kensington. Ahh, the lovely names of these English towns. If you haven’t already guessed, I go in raptures at everything British. The accent (especially the accent!) and these beautiful sounding names. Coming back to Kensington, we stayed at a delightful hotel named Mowbray Court. Our plan was to stay in this area for a few days and then move on to another part of London, this gave us the convenience of being able to cover all the main sights in each area.

To orient ourselves in a new city, we signed up for the popular hop-on, hop-off bus tour of London. These cheerful red buses can be seen everywhere in the city, filled with bright-faced tourists, who look out wide-eyed from the open top bus. Frankly, this is the most convenient way to get around the city as a tourist, especially when you want to go to all the main sights, and want the freedom to spend as much time as you wish at each place. Because it’s open-top and the views are 360 degrees, our first 30mins on this bus was like being inside a fairytale. The weather was exceptionally brilliant when we were in London, it rained only for 2 days towards the end of our visit. I guess we got lucky to be in London the same time as it’s 8 days of summer in the year! As the bus veered left and right on the tiny roads, we basked in the sunshine and took in the views of splendor in front of us, tall mansions and golden statues, imposing art galleries, intricate iron gates, lovely red brick buildings with fancy balconies, I could go on and on. We got off at Buckingham palace, one of the most popular must-see stops. Saying the palace is huge would be a gross understatement. It’s humongous! The guards outside were like mannequins, all attention and holding on to their regal posture with perfection. We were right in time for the famed “Changing the guard” – an archaic tradition still maintained to this day. It’s quite a sight to see the group of royal guards marching in with full pomp and ceremony, on horses and on foot, to the main gates of Buckingham palace and take their place as the New Guard while the Old Guard marches out. The crowds waiting outside the palace to see this sight was tremendous. I am confident all the tourists in London were present there at 11AM that day.

This is such a grand ceremony, oddly out of place, yet a piece of history to witness, that it was completely worth the long wait and the long lines of people.

A number of historic landmarks are within walking distance to Buckingham palace. The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus, the river Thames, Trafalgar Square to mention just a few. We absolutely loved the bridges on the Thames. Our favorite was the Tower bridge. Such a pretty bridge I’ve never laid eyes on as this one. With the blue and white colors, it looked like a pretty cake! Or maybe I was just hungry for cake when we went here, I can’t tell.

We rode across this several times on the bus and in cabs, we even took the ferry tour below it.

I still recall the first time we got out of the underground tube station near Big Ben. It was dark inside, and we stumbled out to the bright sunlit street outside, and looked up and what did we see? The Big Ben in all it’s gothic splendor! Such a grand sight! It took our breath away. After seeing this iconic landmark in countless movies and in photos, seeing it in front of us for real was very exciting. The clock face on the tower, the spires, the beautiful architecture, everything was lovely. We just couldn’t get enough of the history that is everywhere in London. Every brick, every street, every building, every corner of London seems to have a story to tell, of a time gone by, of people who are no longer alive, of the times we can only read in books by Dickens and see in plays by Shakespeare.

What captivated us most about all these historic buildings, apart from their stories, was the gothic-inspired, intricate architecture. We sat at this lovely window to the left, sunning our faces and just enjoying the feeling of being in London. People walked by, softly whispering, because being inside the Abbey automatically enforces that. It feels like we should not be too loud, lest we ruin the peace of the place.

Amongst other highlights, we also saw the Kohinoor Diamond at the Tower of London, learnt about the gruesome stories of traitors and their punishment by execution at the Tower from a beefeater, and climbed the spiral staircase to the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral. We went to so many historic landmarks that in the end our heads were reeling as though from several back-to-back history lessons.

One of the super cool things we did was riding the London Eye. This iconic landmark in London can be seen from everywhere. We had bought tickets for riding the Eye a few days into our trip, and by then we had already passed by the Eye several times, gone near it to admire it, seen it from afar, from our ferry tour, from our bus tour, from across the bridges, from everywhere. So finally when we did get into the glass capsule and started on our slow ascent, it was with a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

We were very lucky that it was a beautiful day outside, the sun was shining, and a few clouds here and there (the last time anybody saw a cloudless sky in London was in the 1600’s. Ha!) added drama to the horizon. This is a photo of the capsule right in front of us. Each of these glass capsules are as big as living room, and can hold a large number of people. Since it’s got glass windows from ceiling to floor on all sides, the views are amazing for everybody no matter where you stand. We could move around once the capsule started on it’s ride, because it moves very slowly, and the entire ride on the giant-wheel takes 30-45mins I think. At the very highest point on the giant-wheel, the views were incredible. It was truly like being inside a fairytale. The river Thames shimmered below us like a curving ribbon, cut here and there by pretty bridges. The buildings in the distance shone in the sunlight, the newer steel structures shiny and white, the older brick ones giving off a red sunny glow. Riding the London Eye is something everybody should do at least once! And on a good weather day!

London is a city of museums, so many that you would need a lifetime to see them all. Our favorite by far was the British Museum (isn’t everybody’s?). I could have set up a tent inside that museum and just lived there. We stayed across from the British Museum at a hotel named “President’s Hotel” for the second part of our stay, and were lucky to get to visit the museum twice. Even then, it was barely enough. We got to see most of the main exhibits, including the famous Rosetta Stone. Highlights that surface in memory are visiting the Egyptian gallery (Hello mummies!) and seeing Roman and Greek artifacts, and the Parthenon sculptures. We also went to the Asian section to see art and sculptures from India. All in all, this is the grand-daddy of all museums and one needs several days to do it any justice.

The Rosetta Stone is truly something. To think that this stone and only this one stone is responsible for us being able to unlock the secret of the hieroglyphs and begin understanding the stories of the Pharaohs and learn about the day to day lives and rituals of the Egyptians is astounding. There were at least a million people surrounding this exhibit and there was quite a bit of jostling around to even get close to it. But the moment you laid eyes on the stone where the same decree is engraved in three scripts – ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Egyptian demotic script and ancient Greek – it’s like a light-bulb inside your head. That’s what the first person who saw this would have felt like. Wow.

2007 is such a long time ago, it’s hard to remember all the details. But I do recall some of the moments that made an emotional impact. Another such moment is our tour inside Buckingham Palace. This walking, self-guided tour was by far the most surreal I’ve ever been on. After a tour through this palace, you will go back home and look at your mansion or fancy apartment or whatever and realize that this doesn’t even come close to luxury. To live like a Queen – only now do I completely understand what this means.  No photography was allowed inside, so all I have is this one from the backyard of the palace when we got out from the tour, our senses still reeling from the display of riches and luxury.

To get over the surreal tour of Buckingham Palace, we headed straight to the next best real thing available to us. Madame Tussauds of London! After seeing the home of the Royal Family, we felt an urge to see them in person dressed up as  wax mannequins. Jokes apart, it was a really fun experience. Lady Diana looked as beautiful as in the pictures I’ve seen of her and Captain Jack Sparrow never looked yummier.

Speaking of yummy, another reason I love travel is the food. When on vacation in a city like London, it is perfectly acceptable to devour a large number of croissants with jam and cheese for breakfast, and sip on many a latte and cappuccino during the course of the day, lunch on delicious gnocchi pasta and pig out at an all-time favorite Indian place called Masala Zone for dinner (they have branches in London everywhere). Their “grand thali” is to die for after a long day of sight-seeing! Carbs? Calories? Huh, what’s that, sorry me no speak English.

At the end of 10 blissful days, we felt we could have stayed in London forever, but alas, one has to get back to reality from the fairy-tales of kings and queens and castles and diamonds. But we will be back!

A promise is a promise, and one made to a city like London has to be kept.

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From → Europe, London

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