- Days 1-12: London
RTW Trip 2014: Peru→ Chile → Argentina → Antarctica → Argentina → Uruguay → Argentina→ Chile→ England → Morocco → Spain → France → Belgium → Netherlands → Germany → Czech Republic → Austria → Hungary → Croatia → Italy → Thailand → United States → Thailand → Laos → Vietnam → Cambodia → Australia → Taiwan
Dates: April 14-25, 2014
When we first decided to spend 2 full weeks in London, some people we told responded by saying, “Why? What are you going to do in London for two whole weeks?” Well, Tim and I can say with confidence that there’s quite a lot you can do in London for two weeks, and I think we had an absolutely perfect London experience- educational, relaxing and fun.
We flew from Santiago to London via Paris in first class thanks to our Sky Team round-the-world ticket. The first flight was 14 hours long and started nicely- we had fully reclining seats, an AirFrance toiletry kit, and a 5 course dinner as well as all the TV and movies we could possibly watch. However, there was a very scary moment on the flight where one of the flight attendants came on the overhead speaker to say that we should make sure we had our seatbelts on as we were flying over the Bermuda Triangle and it’s often a turbulant flight path. Nothing unusual about that, until the plane took a sudden deep dive and the person on the speaker screamed, “No! Oh my God – NOOO!” as the plane continued to dive. It felt like a long time before the plane stabilized, but I’m sure it was only a few seconds. Tim and I were holding one another’s hands very tightly, and I was initially panicked but then thought that if this has to happen, I’ve had a good life and am glad I’m with my best friend and soul mate. Thankfully it didn’t come to that, but it was definitely one of our scariest flight moments.
We arrived safely in London the next day, a Monday, and for our first two nights we stayed with one of my best friends, Rachel, and her boyfriend Nathan. Rachel and I were roommates, psych majors, and French language nerds in college. Nathan and Rachel met when we were all studying abroad in Lyon, France in the spring of 2008, and now they live together in London. I hadn’t seen Rachel since she moved from New York about a year and a half ago so it was so wonderful to get to spend time with her. It was also great for her to finally meet Tim and for Tim and Nathan to meet.
The next day, our first full day in London, we took a free walking tour with an amazing tour guide named Sonja. She did a phenomenol job in her story telling and making the history come alive. This particular tour was focused on royal London and took us to see Trafalger Square, Westminster Abbey, Houses of Parliament, “Big Ben”, Buckingham Palace, St. James Palace and St James Park and some of the “beefeater” guards. I wish I could tell you everything we learned on this tour about all of these places, but that would take way too long so I’ll cover some highlights.
Houses of Parliement- we learned the story of Guy Fawkes, who planned to bomb Parliament on opening day when the monarch and all of government would be present. The plot was thwarted at midnight the night before. Sound like something that would happen in modern times? This was the early 1600s. When they caught him, he was sentenced to death and was hung, drawn and quartered, meaning he was first hung and when on the brink of death, he was taken down and his limbs were stretched out of their sockets, and lastely he was chopped into quarters.
“Big Ben”- the tower and clock we associate with these words is actually not what the tower is called. Big Ben refers to the bell at the top of the tower specifically, and was named so because the designer, Ben, was a bit heavyand had trouble walking up the staircase the day it opened. I think that is a rather sad and mean way for people to remember your life’s work!
Trafalger Square- this square was built to celebrate defeating the French, which is apparently one of England’s favorite pastimes, in the Napoleonic wars. In each of the corners of the square stands a statue. Three of them are of important military or political heros and one is always reserved for a contemporary piece of art. The current installment is a big blue cock. Get your head out of the gutter- I literally mean a rooster. The artist is a feminist who designed it to poke fun at how we celebrate war heroes who in actuality killed so many people and maybe are not the best people to revere in our society. Those men are like roosters, strutting around all proud with their chests puffed out. Her message was not the key take away, however, and her piece is considered very controversial because it angered the French. Why would it anger them? Because blue is the national color of France, and the rooster the national bird. To place these symbols in Trafalger Square, a square that celebrates the defeat of France, was highly offensive to France. In my opinion, the joke is on London for having two honorable symbols of France in a square that symbolizes defeating the French. I assume the artist knew what she was doing here and I think it is a pretty clever joke.
Buckingham Palace and St James Palace- Buckingham Palace is, admittedly, not very impressive relative to some of the other palaces I’ve seen in Europe (Versailles, for example). This could be because it was not originally designed to be a royal palace, but instead the largest home in London. When it was built by the owner, the current king at that time more or less forced the owner to sell it to him. After all, shouldn’t the King own the largest home in London? And, the palace is more impressive than St James Palace, where the monarch sat previously. St James Palace is now used primarily for administrative functions.
St James Park- this charming park near the two palaces has a quirky recent history. A handful of pelicans live there, which were a gift to the royal family from Russia some time ago. Since they did not have many options on with whom to breed, the current generation is quite inbred. They started taking on disturbing behaviors, such as eating pigeons (you can watch it on YouTube here: http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=zIniVfY-ptg). This is not normal pelican behavior, so a team of scientists came in to see what was going on. They determined that indeed it was a lack of diversity in their genes. New pelicans have been introduced to the park to encourage more breeding so that this little problem can sort itself out in the next generations.
That night we attempted a ghost tour with Rachel, but the guide was actually pretty terrible, especially compared to Sonja, so we ducked out early in favor of hot toddies and conversation back at Rachel’s apartment.
On Wednesday, the following day, we left Rachel’s apartment to check into our hotel. I had cashed in some Marriott points for 10 nights at the Marriott at Regent’s Park, which ended up being an excellent decision, since it was right near a tube stop, included free breakfast every morning and free dinner and wine/beer every evening in the concierge lounge as a beneift of being a Platinum Marriott member. They also brought two delicious chocolate plates to our room over the course of our stay. We felt quite spoiled.
After checking in, we dropped off our bags and headed out on the tube for the Tower of London. Quick sidenote on London’s underground tube system- it is amazing. Expensive, but amazing. We’ve never seen a subway system that is so clean, easy to navigate, and well-connected. We love the tube.
Back to the Tower of London. I first learned about the Tower of London in a Goosebumps novel when I was a kid, so naturally I thought of it as a really freaking scary place. And, in reality, the history of the place is quite spooky and dark indeed. The Tower of London was built in the 11th century and served over history as both the royal home as well as a prison (kind of ironic in my opinion, given how public the British royals lives are). Very few formal executions took place here (Anne Bolyn was one), but we know that an undocumented and very large number of people were likely tortured and killed here during the imprisonments. The Tower of London had a reputation for being a place where people would go and never be seen again. Touring the towers and jail cells was fascinating, and, out of place as it may seem, the current crown jewels are on display in an exhibit here. The line for said exhibit was insanely long, so we didn’t go in to see the sceptor, orb and annointing spoon, but did “accidentally” find the exit to the exhibit and catch a glimpse of the Queen’s crown- the most impressive piece of them all.
Our next day was pretty busy- we started by touring the Museum of London, a museum dedicated to London’s history, starting with prehistoric times. The museum is very nicely put together and offers free hourly tours of some of its exhibits. Another cool fact about London is that all of the museums are free and from what we saw of very high quality!
After the museum, we made our way to the meeting point for another walking tour, this time of the old City of London. On the way, we walked by a barber shop on Fleet Street (do you see where I’m going with this?) that had a sign advertising cheap cuts for men and women. After 3 months sans haircut, Tim and I had it on our to do list to get haircuts in London so we ducked in for a quick trim. We came to find out that this was actually the barber shop where the musical film Sweeney Todd was filmed. I haven’t seen it but now I’m very eager to!
After that we got to the meeting point for our walking tour which focused on the square mile of the actual “City of London” which we learned is under a separate mayor and exempt from the Queen’s rule. In fact, tradition requires (as tradition often does in London) that the Queen is not even allowed to enter the City of London unless the Mayor greets her and hands her the keys. The two highlights of this tour in my opinion were seeing the Bank of London, where not only all of Great Britain’s gold is stored, but also the gold of 70+ other nations. That is a huge ass bank. The second piece I found most interesting was learning about how if you look closely at many of the buildings in this area, for example, an old church we walked by, you can still see the damage in the walls from the Blitz bombing during the second world war.
The next day we just relaxed and watched Netflix. The nice thing about having more time in one location is building in time for resting- we’ve learned over the past few months to keep this a priority. That evening we joined one last city walking tour, again with our favorite tour guide Sonja, which focused on the grim aspects of London’s history- ghost stories and Jack the Ripper. I mentioned before that Sonja is an amazing story teller, and this made this particular tour very fun to be on. She pulls you in to the narrative and helps you visualize the story. I imagine that should would have been a fun girl to have at sleepovers as a kid when you’re all sitting around in the dark with a flashlight telling ghost stories. I think ghost tours are fun, even if you don’t believe in them- just entertaining the possibility that the stories are real is exciting. This tour also had a truly sad and scary part, though- that being the story of Jack the Ripper. I won’t go into all of the grim details but for those who do not know who Jack the Ripper he is, he murdered and mutilated many women in the late 1800s/early 1900s in London (and some theorize he eventually came to the United States as well) who were all prostitutes in East London. He was never caught. We learned the stories of each of his victims, which is sure to satisfy anyone’s fascination with the morbid, but more meaningfully, we also learned about the social structures in place that opressed women at this time. Specifically, when women were either unmarried, divorced or widowed, they had no one to support them financially and could not typically get jobs at decent wages (if they could get a job at all). Often these women had kids, and so to survive many women became prostitutes. The value of the Jack the Ripper story is that it sheds light on this aspect of life in London in this time period that would have otherwise been forgotten.
Our evening after the tour was much lighter- we met up with Rachel and Nathan at their apartment for some drinks and then went out to a hotel bar a short cab ride away, where we met up with our old friend Peter who had studied abroad with us and now lives in London. I had not seen Peter since 2009 when we graduated college so it was great to see him and catch up. It was a fun reunion.
The next morning we got up way too early for having been out so late, but for a good reason. We were going on a day trip to Windsor, Bath and Stonehenge. These three unrelated but interesting stops are great to tackle in a day, as you don’t really need a ton of time at any one place (except maybe Windsor), and the tour company we booked through made everything easy. It included all transportation and all entrance fees, as well as audio guides at each place and a tour guide on the bus who explained our destinations as well as things we’d drive by. We considered it an excellent value, and if you ever have the opportunity to take this day trip, I recommend it, and Evan Evans is the tour company we used.
Our first stop was Windsor Castle, which is truly your quintessential midieval (spelling) castle. This castle has been the home of the monarch for nearly a thousand years and is where Queen Elizabeth II lives today and is her preferred home over Buckingham Palace. It was truly awesome to walk through the staterooms and gardens that are so old and hold so much history, yet are still used for events today. I could have easily spent more time exploring Windsor.
In Bath, we toured the ancient Roman bath house, which was very unique and not something I’d ever seen before. We learned about the baths as a social meeting place as well as the engineering of bringing the water in to the pools. After the tour, we watched a street performer doing fire tricks on giant unicycles, and Tim was actually in the show helping lift the performer on to his tallest unicycle.
Our last stop was Stonehenge, and I enjoyed this stop a lot. Now, if you read online about Stonehenge, a lot of people say it is not worth going to, that it’s just a bunch of rocks and that there’s nothing to do there. It is absolutely true that the only thing to see there really is the rocks, but in my opinion it is also entirely worth seeing, especially if you know anything about the history and mystery shrouding this structure built 5000 years ago. 5000 years is a ridiculously long time! I think if you go to Stonehenge with the right mindset (to learn, not merely to see), then you can really enjoy this fascinating place. Tim and I definitely did. That said, it does not require a long visit, and is a bit out of town so when you go, combine it with another tour like Windsor or Bath too to make the trip out of town more substantial.
At the end of the day we were pretty exhausted so we took it easy that night and slept in the next morning (Easter Sunday). Easter afternoon we went to a matinee showing of the Lion King musical, which I have wanted to see ever since it came out when I was a child. I’ve seen a handful of musicals previously and while all of them have been good, this one was my favorite. It’s very beautifully done and a sheer pleasure to watch.
Monday Tim and I took another leisurely day of just walking around the parks near our hotel and doing some shopping. Tuesday was also pretty relaxed- we visited the London Dungeon, which is admittedly a total tourist gimick but quite fun. It is basically a guided tour and reenactment of the creepy parts of London (Tower of London, Jack the Ripper, torture methods, etc) that also has some fun rides. It is basically a mini amusement park/haunted house type attraction. The best part for us was that we knew so much London history that we could easily understand the quick mentions of Guy Fawkes, Sweeney Todd, Jack The Ripper, and everything else.
That evening I got together with Rachel for some one-on-one time for dinner and tea. I was so spoiled during my time in London to get to see her so frequently (and even more so in college when she lived in my room!)- I am definitely missing her now.
Wednesday Tim and I took another tour out of town, this time to the Cotswolds and to Oxford. The Cotswolds are hills in the London countryside dotted with small old towns. We stopped at two during this tour- Winster Lovell and Burford. The first was pretty cool, mainly because we got to tour some old ruins of the town and church from centuries ago. The second town was just a lunch stop and was kind of boring. We spent the afternoon in Oxford, which I really enjoyed as a bit of an academics geek. Oxford is beautiful and is home to the largest academic library in the world. It made me want to go study for a test or something. We also walked through a museum of history of science and got to see a preserved chalkboard where Einstein wrote out his theory of relativity during a lecture he gave at Oxford- Tim and I both thought that was pretty awesome to see, and a testament to the importance of Einstein’s theory even in its beginnings. The breakthrough was so significant that the administration at Oxford knew even then to preserve that chalkboard. Can you imagine having developed an idea so profound that prestigious academic institutions would set aside a chalkboard you wrote on?
Overall, this was an interesting day trip, but not as much as the one to Windsor, Bath and Stonehenge. If we were in London on a shorter trip, we could have easily skipped the trip to the Cotswolds and Oxford and not have missed too much at all.
Thursday we visited the science museum, which had some fun interactive exhibits (mine and Tim’s favorite) and then got together one last time with Rachel as we were leaving Saturday. It was sad to say goodbye, but we made a goal to make sure we see each other again sometime within the next year.
Friday was our last full day in London and a great last day it was. We went to see Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus at the Globe Theater and bought two tickets for standing room in front of the stage for a total of about $12. The tickets were super cheap and I think we had the best spots in the whole theater. What makes the Globe so cool is that aside from architecturely reflecting the setup of the theater in which Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed 400 years ago, the productions stay true to the costumes, technology and staging we believe the plays had in their original performances. Being on the floor in front of the stage, you are actually in the play, because the actors are performing on the stage but also off, so there would be times when we would have to move out of the way of the actors or duck our heads to avoid getting knocked with a trumpet. The play itself was great- excellent acting, intriguing and dramatic story, and easy to follow and understand. The three hours went by quickly. I have to give a lot of appreciation to my high school English teacher, Mrs. Biddle who did a wonderful job making Shakespeare come to life in her classroom. My enjoyment of the plays we studied in her class is what made me prioritize seeing a play at the Globe and I’m sure made me appreciate the performance even more. Seeing this play was one of my favorite things we did in London and something I would recommend very highly, even if you aren’t familiar with the play showing during your visit.
Our last night in London we met up with some friends from our Antarctic cruise – Wade, Suzie and Sarah. Wade and Suzie brought us delicious homemade cheesecake and we all enjoyed some white wine. Perhaps too much wine. It was a really fun final night in London, though admittedly I felt like crap the next day (like I said, too much wine).
Saturday morning we were able to relax a bit- which was necessary after the previous night- before heading to the airport for our afternoon flight to Marrakech, bringing us to our sixth country and fifth continent of our trip!